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Thumb sucking: When should you be concerned?

Posted 2/10/2012   Updated 2/10/2012 Email story   Print story


by Capt. Leslie N. Jones
633rd Dental Squadron

2/10/2012 - LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va.  -- EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of three articles written in celebration of National Children's Dental Health Month, celebrated each February.

Thumb sucking is a natural and normal habit for babies and young children. It often begins in the womb and continues after birth. As children grow, the sucking of thumbs and fingers becomes a way to learn about their environment. Some children find this habit relaxing, and will suck to soothe and comfort themselves, especially when falling asleep. Most children lose interest between 2 and 4 years of age, but those who do not are at risk for developing a variety of dental problems.

Long-term thumb sucking can interfere with development of the mouth and palate and can cause malposition of permanent teeth. "Buck teeth," or front teeth that do not close properly leaving an open bite, and development of a lisp are some of the more obvious side effects associated with sucking. Such problems can require orthodontic treatment to correct, which may not have been necessary without the habit. Pacifiers can affect teeth in similar ways, but the habit is usually much easier to stop.

When does thumb sucking become a problem?

One factor that affects the likelihood of a child developing dental problems is the intensity with which it is done. Children who rest their thumbs in their mouth are less likely to develop future problems than those who vigorously suck their thumbs. If the sucking is aggressive enough, children may even develop problems with their primary, or "baby" teeth. If permanent teeth have begun to erupt - usually around age 5 or 6 - sucking is much likelier to cause malposition and other aforementioned problems.

What can you do?

Encourage your child to drop their thumb-sucking habit before his or her permanent teeth erupt. If your child continues to suck their thumb at age 4, it is time to intervene. Don't punish your child. Rather, praise them for not sucking.

If your child sucks their thumb when anxious, focus on the cause of the anxiety and provide comfort. Explain to your child that they should stop sucking in order to keep their teeth looking pretty. If all else fails or you need additional encouragement, ask your dentist for help.

10/9/2012 1:27:51 PM ET
Thumbuddy To Love helps children ages 3-6 stop thumb sucking. It comes with a book and thumb puppet and success chart. Google Thumbuddy To Love or get it on Amazon. Dentist also carry it as a teaching tool for young ones to teach the importance of breaking the thumb sucking habit.
Andrea, Colorado
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