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Thumb-sucking

Dear Parents Series: Thumb-sucking

Should I be Concerned about My Child’s Thumb-sucking Habit?

As a pediatric dentist, I frequently field questions from parents concerned if thumb-sucking will impact their child’s long-term oral health. First, let me say that thumb-sucking is a natural occurrence in infants. It is a normal, comforting, developmental behavior. Research shows that more than three-quarters of all infants suck their thumbs (or other fingers) during their first year.

However, if thumb-sucking becomes a habit and endures beyond the age of three, the continuous pressure and sucking motion may begin to make changes to the mouth and teeth. As a pediatric dentist, that concerns me.

As detailed by both the American Dental Association (ADA) and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), habitual thumb-sucking beyond the age of three may cause the front teeth to thrust or tip forward, and the child’s bite will be open, not allowing the upper and lower front teeth to touch. Ultimately, these skeletal changes can affect the alignment of the permanent or secondary teeth.

As your dentist, I can identify and evaluate these changes and provide the necessary care.

At this point, I should note that many infants/toddlers also use pacifiers during the formative 0-3 years. The consequences of thumb-sucking and pacifier use are similar, but research (and my experience) indicates that it is easier to break a child of a pacifier habit than it is to break an established thumb-sucking habit.

When appropriate and timely, I sometimes will recommend that parents introduce pacifier use to a child who is a habitual thumb-sucker. Again, the reason is that it is usually easier to wean a child off a pacifier.

As your dentist, I may also recommend the use of a mouth appliance that can help a child stop thumb-sucking by interfering with the sucking habit. I will have that conversation with you if – and when – I feel use of this appliance would be beneficial.

The bottom line is that parents should not be overly concerned by their infant’s thumb-sucking or pacifier use. However, if your child is still engaging in this behavior when he or she turns three, it is appropriate for you (and me/my team) to step in and help moderate or eliminate the behavior.

With the use of appropriate, proven behavior modification tool and techniques, even the most stubborn thumb-sucking or pacifier use habit/dependence can be broken before it begins to permanently impact your youngster’s oral health.

Note from Dr. Bui: In the Dear Parent Series, my goal is to provide parents with the information they need to make the best possible decisions related to their child’s pediatric dental care. Please ask me any follow-up questions you might have on these important topics. I will be happy to provide as much information as you need.

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