It’s adorable. It’s endearing. It’s something most of us engaged in at least once or twice when we were little. But thumbsucking doesn’t just lose its cuteness as your child gets older. It can have serious dental consequences for kids who suck their thumbs regularly and for too long.
Thumb sucking is both a natural habit for young children and a common way to learn self-soothing or provide instant comfort. Often this behavior will fade away on its own with no lasting effects, but this isn’t always the case. If your child is still sucking his thumb when his/her adult teeth start to come in (around 5 or 6), it can cause the following problems:
- narrowing or malformation of the jaw: the pressure created by suction can affect the growth of a child’s upper jaw, which in turn can cause a misaligned bite.
- misalignment of the teeth: as teeth erupt, thumb sucking will often push them in the wrong direction, aggravating existing alignment problems and sometimes creating a “thumb hole” in the front teeth. This leaves the bulk of the chewing to the back premolars, and the resulting imbalance can affect the structure of the mouth and jaw.
- lisp and other speech impediments: malformation of the jaw, teeth and bite can result in lisps and other speech impediments that might require therapy to correct.
It is important to note that a particularly aggressive thumbsucking habit can cause these types of problems even earlier, when your child is still using baby teeth - if you think this may be the case, consult a dental professional.
So what are some ways we can nip this habit in the bud before it starts to become a problem?
- reward positive behavior: be careful not to criticize your child’s thumbsucking, since it's usually associated with a need to self soothe or anxiety, and criticism will just make it worse. Instead focus on the times when they aren't resorting to that behavior and reward/praise accordingly.
- identify triggers: determine what times of day, conditions and stressors exacerbate the habit and work to nullify those triggers.
- distract and substitute: when you notice thumb sucking, immediately give your child something else to do that requires both hands, e.g. a toy/book/other activity. If it's a bigger problem at night, send them to bed with a large stuffed animal that they'd need two hands to hold or use a similar distraction.
- start a conversation: many kids do it automatically without thought or do it for attention. Explain the repercussions of thumb sucking for too long. Frame giving the habit up as a rite of passage, as part of being a “big kid.” When you notice the behavior, gently remind your child of what they're doing.
If you’re worried about what thumbsucking may be doing to your child’s mouth, don’t hesitate to talk to your dentist. He/she can help you assess the severity of the issue and troubleshoot from there!