Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking is a habit that nearly every baby practices. The child usually uses his thumb as a pacifier and feels a sense of comfort when he\she does so. This self-soothing is a result of the normal sucking reflex that is present since birth, and responsible for the inherent ability of babies to breastfeed. As the child grows older and is weaned, he\she sometimes searches for another source of comfort and warmth. That’s the reason some kids resort to sucking their thumb, fingers and even their toes.

Does thumb sucking affect my child’s teeth?

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Thumb sucking has quite a detrimental effect on children’s teeth and jaws. Every baby is born with their lower jaw smaller than their upper jaw. Eventually, the lower jaw catches up to the upper jaw resulting in a normal appearance, which is the facial structure more than 85% of the population has. Thumb sucking disrupts this process, as the thumb becomes an obstacle preventing healthy growth and development of the child’s bones. Another effect of the thumb is that it most probably presses on the upper front teeth, which leads to a forward inclination of such teeth making the appearance known as an open bite, where the back teeth typically close while front teeth have a gap between them. The thumb also presses on the roof of the mouth (called the palate), leading to increased curvature of the palate and subsequently narrowing of the nasal passages and ultimately difficulty breathing.
                     
How can a parent help a child stop this habit?

Most children develop this habit as a means of comfort and so cease it on their own between the ages of two and four years of age without the need for intervention, that’s before the permanent teeth begin to come in the mouth, and therefore no permanent damage will be done.

The problems start to occur if the habit doesn’t stop by that age, and so parents are strongly advised to start paying attention and begin their quest to stop such practice. It is essential to learn the reason behind the habit before starting the intervention. Parental intervention begins with advice and praising their kids for stopping the practice. If the child sucks his thumb due to boredom, try to divert their attention and engage them in more exciting activities. If they do it as a means of feeling comfortable and secure, try to reduce their anxiety and insecurity with other tactics.

The pediatric dentist should also be consulted if all else fails. He possesses enough knowledge and experience to reach the child and try to stop the habit. Dentists, in the beginning, try to do so with minimal intervention, but in advanced cases, they can use specific appliances to halt the practice; these are called habit breaking appliances. These can be removable such as a device called T-guard, which has the greatest success of all devices, or they can be fixed to the teeth and palate such as a device called tongue guard. The purpose of these appliances is to remind the child to refrain from putting their thumb in their mouth.

The most important thing to know is that early detection and prevention is essential for healthy child growth and development of their teeth and jaws. Ignoring the problem or thinking it will resolve on its own can lead to serious complications, and the child will probably need extensive orthodontic therapy in the future to correct these.

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