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How Thumb Sucking Affects Teeth Alignment

Thumb sucking is not uncommon. Many babies and young children suck their thumbs or fingers. This is actually a natural behavior. Babies begin to suck their thumbs in the womb, and they continue the practice after birth because it makes them feel safe, secure, and happy. The American Dental Association explains that “placing a thumb or another finger in the mouth provides some children with a sense of security during difficult periods, such as when they are separated from their parents, surrounded by strangers or in an unfamiliar environment. Since  it is relaxing, it may also help induce sleep. For this reason, young children may suck their thumbs in the evening or other times when they are tired.”

How Thumb Sucking Affects Teeth Alignment

Sucking a thumb at a young age, particularly before children begin teething, is completely natural and will not harm your child’s teeth. In fact, it is actually okay as long as the behavior is stopped before a child’s permanent teeth begin to come in. After the age of five or six, sucking a thumb and pacifier use can begin to affect the position of a child’s teeth. Prolonged thumb sucking can change the position of a child’s teeth, resulting in malocclusion of the teeth

Read more about baby teeth here.

Malocclusion, according to Medline Plus, “refers to the alignment of the teeth and the way that the upper and lower teeth fit together.” Sucking a thumb  can cause crooked teeth, overcrowding, or a bite that doesn’t fit together properly. Ideally, the top teeth should evenly and neatly overlap the bottom teeth, but if sucking a thumb has affected the alignment of the teeth then there will a gap between the teeth. Over time, prolonged thumb sucking can push the teeth out and at that point orthodontic treatment will be needed to correct the problem.

But it can affect more than just a child’s teeth. Prolonged thumb sucking can alter the shape of the roof of a child’s mouth. This will effect a child’s speaking voice and cause difficulty in pronouncing and articulating certain letters.

Certain kinds of thumb sucking are worse than others. The American Dental Association says that “Children who rest their thumbs passively in their mouths are less likely to experience difficulty than those who vigorously suck their thumbs. When an active thumb sucker removes his or her thumb from the mouth, a popping sound often is heard. Some aggressive thumb suckers may cause problems with their primary (baby) teeth.”

So what can you do if your children continue to suck their thumbs after the age of five or six? The answer is that there a lot of options to help break this habit. Weaning a child from it can be difficult, but it is certainly possible.

  • Never scold children for sucking a thumb. The worst thing you can do is make your child feel bad for thumb sucking. Instead offer the child positive praise or a small reward for occasions when he or she doesn’t suck the thumb.
  • Some children suck their thumbs to soothe anxiety. Identify the source of your child’s anxiety comfort your child, and, if you can, stop the mood from developing in the first place. If the anxiety is unavoidable, help your child find a more healthy way to alleviate his or her anxiety.
  • Reward your child for avoiding thumb sucking behavior, particularly during a difficult or anxious occasion.
  • Make an appointment with your family dentist, so that he or she can explain the effects of thumb sucking on their teeth.
  • If the above tips are not effective, then try bandaging the thumb or putting a sock on your child’s hand at night (a time when thumb sucking often happens) to remind the child of the habit.
  • And if all else fails, go see your child’s dentist. Your dentist can prescribe a mouth appliance or bitter medication to coat the thumb.

About Mark C. Marchbanks, D.D.S.

Dr. Mark Marchbanks has practiced dentistry in Arlington Texas since 1983. He enjoys caring for patients young and old. You can find Dr. Marchbanks on Twitter or on Linkedin. If it's been more than 6 months since your last teeth cleaning, give us a call today to schedule your check-up.

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