Thumb sucking and concerns

Babies are born with a reflex to suck any object placed in their mouth. This behaviour helps during the first few months of establishing feeding and disappears at around four months. Thumb sucking, however, is not reflexive and is believed to be a self-soothing practice.

There are usually no long-term ill-effects from thumb sucking in early childhood and most children naturally give-up the habit somewhere between 2-4 years of age. However, if thumb or finger sucking continues past this age it can alter the normal growth of the jaws and cause significant misalignment of the front adult teeth as they erupt into the mouth.

Why do children suck their thumb?

Common problems caused by thumb sucking

The following are common problems which orthodontists frequently see in children who have had this habit:

  1. Protrusive upper front teeth

    This can be a simple tooth position problem, where the upper incisor teeth are tipped forward. Occasionally, the formation of the jaw can be affected, which can lead to the upper jaw and teeth protruding from the face.

  2. Tipped back lower front teeth

    The pressure of the thumb forces the lower incisor teeth to tip toward the tongue.

  3. Open bite

    The upper and lower front teeth do not meet when the back teeth bite together. The shape of the opening between the upper and lower front teeth may match the child’s finger or thumb exactly.

  4. Crossbite

    The formation of the upper jaw is too narrow for the lower jaw, so the upper and lower teeth do not fit together properly. This can occur as a result of the flexing of the cheek muscles while the child is sucking their thumb.

It is important to be careful when breaking a habit such as thumb sucking. Children often use this as an emotional crutch and we must be sensitive to the psychology behind the habit. Punishment and nagging is not the best approach – patience, persistence, and encouragement are essential.

Why do some children suck their thumb?

Babies have natural sucking reflexes – even in the womb. This often causes them to suck any object that is placed in their mouth, from their own fingers and toes to toys and pacifiers. However, as children grow and their teeth begin to develop, this reflexive habit can become a method of self-soothing and comforting themselves. If the habit continues as the child ages, it can place pressure on the developing teeth and cause a range of orthodontic issues later in life.

Here are some tips on how to stop thumb-sucking:

  • Rewards and encouragement such as a hug or praise can reinforce their decision to stop the habit.
  • Limit nagging as a child can become defensive.
  • Mark progress on a calendar for each day or week a child does not suck their thumb or finger.
  • Provide a special outing or a toy as a reward.
  • Give reminders e.g. place unpleasant tasting nail paint (available from chemists) on the fingers or thumb, put a bandaid over the thumb at bedtime.
  • Offer distractions e.g. toys on a car trip.
  • Where mittens, gloves or commercially available thumb guards during sleep.
  • Various orthodontic appliances may be considered if all of the above conservative measures prove unsuccessful after discussing this with your orthodontist.

Early orthodontic treatment

If your child has an extended thumb sucking habit or if it has already started to alter the alignment of their teeth and jaw, then early orthodontic treatment may be required. Pre-teen treatment is usually the first phase and helps to guide the jaw’s growth pattern so that less extensive orthodontic treatment is needed to correct any bite issues during later years. It can also help to ensure that there is enough room in the mouth for permanent teeth to be place properly as they grow in. This can help reduce crowding and any further alignment issues from becoming uncomfortable for the child.

Orthodontic treatment options

The type of orthodontic treatment your child will require will depend on the type of issue they have developed from this habit. Some cases may require the use of a plate or spacers during the first phase of their treatment, setting up their mouth for growth in the future and ensuring no additional orthodontic issues are formed. Their second phase of treatment as a teen may require traditional metal braces or lingual braces to correct extensive bite and jaw alignment problems, as well as straightening crooked teeth.

If you’re concerned about the effects of your child’s thumb sucking habit on their growing smile, the best thing you can do is schedule an appointment with your orthodontist to assess their teeth and develop a long-term treatment plan.

Only an orthodontist will be able to properly assess their teeth and jaw to identify potential problems and develop a safe orthodontic treatment plan.

finger sucking

How to fix an overbite from thumb sucking

Prolonged thumb sucking will often lead to a distinct overbite or an overjet of the front teeth from the pressure placed on developing teeth by the thumb. Depending on the complexity of the issue and the developing malocclusion, this may be corrected by an orthodontist using Phase One treatment methods such as a plate before the child enters their teen years.

However, more complex or severe cases may require a full course of traditional braces to correct the issue. It is best to consult a specialist orthodontist to have them assess your child’s growth as soon as possible (between the ages of 4 – 7 if the child is persistently thumb sucking) to get an understanding of the treatments or ways to help them break the habit. Only a specialist orthodontist will be able to make recommendations to help you plan for your child’s future orthodontic needs.

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Jothumbsie says:

Thumbsie offer a great way to help stop digit sucking with our fun and comfortable fabric thumb guards. Lots of different fabrics to choose from and lots of success with children aged 2 - teens, some adults too.

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