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Babies do about a million cute things that make us smile in wonderment and delight. They yawn. They coo and gurgle. They smile those toothless smiles. Even their thumb sucking is endearing. There are many habits during infancy to cherish.

But many parents wonder if baby thumb sucking is okay. If your baby is sucking their thumb, will it affect their teeth? In other words, is thumb sucking bad for babies? Will my child need orthodontic treatment someday because they sucked their thumb as an infant? Thankfully, you can breathe a sigh of relief — there’s good news when it comes to your baby sucking their thumb. However, thumb sucking can be bad if it continues into toddlerhood or early elementary school: it can become a cause for concern when it comes to your child’s oral development.

As your Greenville, SC pediatric dentist, we’re here to help you navigate the best course for your child’s teeth and oral health, from their infancy all the way to their teens. Parents of wee ones often ask us about early oral habits like thumb sucking, so to help  you and your little one make the best choices for their teeth, we want to share all you need to know about thumb sucking and its effects on teeth.

Why is my baby sucking their thumb?

Let’s start at the beginning. Babies are born with a natural sucking reflex. In fact, some babies already practice sucking their thumbs in the womb! Fun fact: a Johns Hopkins article notes that 90% of babies show a tendency to suck their thumb a mere two hours after birth. So it makes sense that your baby might suck their thumb — or suck on a pacifier if you offer one. It’s a natural developmental stage for infants. 

You might also find that your baby sucks on their fingers or hands. Any of these sucking habits are key for babies to self-soothe. It gives them a sense of security on their own and often helps them fall asleep. Some pediatricians even suggest offering a pacifier when you put your baby to sleep: in certain studies it’s tied to a reduction in SIDS. And we should mention, too, that when babies put things in their mouths, it’s one way they learn about the world around them. 

When should my baby stop thumb sucking?

As we mentioned earlier, thumb sucking can become problematic for teeth once your baby is a baby no longer. Enter: the toddler years. Your sweet bundle is now up and walking (correction: running!) and there’s a host of new developmental phases to experience. Your little one now has many teeth that they use to bite and chew a whole new range of foods.

Many kids stop sucking their thumb between ages two and four or grow out of using their pacifier. But if your child is still sucking their thumb or pacifier consistently at this age, it might be time to step in. The American Academy of Pediatrics Dentistry suggests you should start discouraging thumb sucking (and pacifier use) after age three. However, the American Dental Association recommends giving a bit more time, saying you should start discouraging these habits if they continue past age four. 

If you’re not sure what to do, we’re glad to see you and your child at our comfy Greenville office to assess your child’s teeth and provide suggestions. Indeed, if you haven’t already done so, we suggest coming in for a baby dental exam by the time they turn one.

What orthodontic issues does prolonged thumb sucking cause?

The effects of prolonged thumb sucking? This habit puts pressure on the teeth and palate, sometimes resulting in orthodontic issues. The same goes for pacifier use. Prolonged thumb sucking can lead to crooked teeth — most noticeably front teeth that flare out — along with changes in the roof of the mouth. Children can also get misaligned jaws, like an open bite or overbite from a prolonged habit of thumb sucking. These issues are even more likely and can be more severe if thumb sucking continues when your child has their permanent teeth.

Passive thumb sucking can be okay

Now, you might be wondering, “Is all thumb sucking bad?” Keep an eye out for passive thumb sucking, which at minimal frequency is typically okay for little ones and won’t contribute to teeth issues. What is passive thumb sucking? This type of thumb sucking is when your child puts their thumb in their mouth but doesn’t actually suck on it. That means there’s minimal pressure on their teeth and jaws. It’s common for little kids to still stick their thumb in their mouth to self soothe without actually sucking on it — like during stressful times or to help them go to sleep. 

How can you tell what’s passive thumb sucking and what’s not? Problem thumb sucking has aggressive jaw movements and a popping sound when your child takes their thumb out.

So how do parents stop a prolonged thumb sucking habit?

If your child is still sucking their thumb at age four, it’s important to start encouraging them to stop. Here are some tips for how to stop thumb sucking:

1. Empower your child to stop on their own

At this age, “I want to do it!” is a phrase you hear many times in the day-to-day. And that’s great! So lean into your child’s desire for independence and give them tools to stop thumb sucking on their own.

Start by talking with your child calmly and gently about why they need to start trying to stop. Key word: empowerment (not shame or criticism). Let them know you’re there to help them and you can do this together. Sometimes even bringing it up is all you need to get started.

2. Use positive reinforcement

Praise your child when you notice they don’t suck their thumb when they normally would. By age four, kids tend to suck their thumb when they’re bored or not doing something with their hands, like when they’re watching TV or riding in the car.

Try a reward system like a sticker chart or end-of-the day treat. External rewards are a great motivator for kids of all ages. For little ones, a sticker chart with a short time-span is more understandable for them, for example, a week’s worth of stickers can keep their attention but a month might lose their interest.

3. Get ahead of their anxieties or stressors

Like we mentioned earlier, thumb sucking in the later toddler years can linger as a response to anxieties or stress. Be proactive about anxiety-inducing situations or things. Identify your child’s triggers — get to the root of the stress and respond with comfort. We suggest also teaching them coping mechanisms: reaching for a favorite stuffy, a blankie, or talking it out with a trusted adult like mommy, daddy, a grandparent, or a childcare provider.

4. Change their activity

When you notice your child starting to suck their thumb, it’s a good opportunity to change their activity. In this case, distraction and novelty can be helpful. If your little one sucks their thumb when they’re bored, fidgety, or is just having a hard moment and is cranky, offer:

  • A new activity that keeps their hands busy like a new game, puzzles, or fidget toys
  • A change of scenery – get outside, go for a walk, or play in a different part of the house

5. Saying hello to Sock Puppet

Here’s an extra fun way to help your child stop thumb sucking their thumb: put a sock on their hand. It might sound strange but it works! Kids tend to favor either the right or left thumb so cover that hand with a sock at the times your child typically sucks their thumb. 

Make it silly and playful by putting googly-eyes and a funny smile on the sock and turn it into a puppet. Get creative! You might want to prepare a few of these sock puppets so you can easily refresh them when they get too soggy.

How your Greenville-area pediatric dentists can help with thumb sucking

When all at-home methods fail, Dr. Chay and Dr. Hendrix are here to help you with how to stop your child’s prolonged thumb sucking. As pediatric dentists, we’re experts in the oral habits of little ones and can provide ways to help your child succeed with stopping their thumb sucking habit.

First, we can chat with your child with gentleness and compassion about why it’s important to stop thumbsucking for the health of their teeth. As you might’ve experienced already with babysitters, childcare providers, or grandparents, kids are more likely to listen when it’s not their parents!

At this appointment, we can also perform a dental cleaning and exam so we can check for any dental issues like cavities and see if your child is on track with their oral development.

Habit breaking appliances

Second, we offer custom, habit-breaking appliances designed as an effective deterrent to thumb sucking. When all other methods don’t work, we’ve seen that an appliance to stop thumb sucking seems to work like magic. 

There are several types of these thumb sucking appliances to choose from and they are either fixed or removable. All of them block the thumb from coming into contact with the back of your child’s upper front teeth, making it less enjoyable to suck their thumb and acting as a reminder to stop. A thumb sucking device is especially useful for thumb sucking during sleep, since you’re not there to monitor your child’s thumb-sucking the entire time.

Is a habit breaking appliance painful? At Oak Tree Pediatric Dentistry, we definitely understand this concern when it comes to little ones. Rest assured, a thumb sucking device isn’t painful when it’s put in or when your child is wearing it. However, it typically takes a few days to get used to, and your child might be a little cranky as a result. Be prepared for extra cuddles, more patience, and maybe some special treats and gifts to make the transition smoother.

Partnering with you on your child’s oral well-being in Greenville, SC

Dr. Jon Chay, Dr. Martha Hendrix and the team at Oak Tree Pediatric Dentistry are your partners in caring for your child’s growing smile.

Let us know if we can help you and your child succeed with leaving their thumb sucking habit behind. 

Oak Tree Pediatric Dentistry

Author Oak Tree Pediatric Dentistry

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