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Can thumb sucking damage your child’s teeth?

If your child continues to thumb suck after age four, tooth alignment and bite issues may arise.

Common among young children, thumb sucking can help be an effective way for young children to self-soothe. However, as children age, it can become an embarrassing habit that can be harmful to their oral health.

Studies suggest that 70 to 90% of children take part in some form of finger sucking or pacifier use in their lifetime.1 Usually, it’s a harmless habit that kids grow out of on their own between the ages of two and four years old. However, when children continue to thumb suck as they get older, issues with tooth alignment and bite can arise.2

Why do children suck their thumbs?

All infants are born with the need to suck—in fact, some infants even start thumb sucking while still in the womb.3 Thumb sucking is a natural reflex that can make children feel secure, soothed and safe.4

Is thumb sucking bad?

For young children, thumb sucking is usually nothing to worry about. Thumb sucking is a perfectly normal habit, one that children usually grow out of on their own.5 As long as the habit stops early, it usually doesn’t have any negative long-term side effects. Thumb sucking is especially harmless if your child only does it now or then, such as during a stressful event or at bedtime.

Thumb sucking can damage your child’s teeth

Thumb sucking can damage teeth, but it doesn’t always. If the habit stops early enough, dental problems are usually avoided or self-corrected, as they only occur in the primary teeth.6 However, if your child continues to thumb suck after the age of four when permanent teeth are developing and preparing to erupt, more serious dental problems can arise.7

Damage to teeth from thumb sucking can include:8

  • Problems with tooth alignment
  • Overbite
  • Open bite
  • Crossbite
  • Changes in the roof of the mouth

The effect of thumb sucking on teeth depends on a variety of factors, including the intensity, frequency, and duration of thumb sucking. For example, children who occasionally rest their thumbs passively in their mouths are much less likely to have serious bite or alignment issues than children who vigorously suck their thumbs.9

If your child is four years old or younger, thumb sucking shouldn’t be much cause for concern. But if your child is older, it might be a good idea to try and help them curb the habit. In either case, your dentist can offer advice on whether your child’s thumb sucking is causing any dental problems, what to look out for and how to help your child stop thumb sucking.

How to help your child stop thumb sucking

Curbing your kid’s thumb sucking habit can be beneficial for both your child’s physical and social well being. While different techniques work for different children, here are a few ways you can try to help your child break the thumb sucking habit:10

  • Positive reinforcement - Praise your child when you notice them not thumb sucking.
  • Notice triggers - Children tend to suck their thumbs when feeling insecure or uncomfortable. Correcting the cause of their anxiety can solve the problem at its source.
  • Ask for input - If your child is old enough, involve them in choosing how to stop.
  • Involve your dentist - At your child’s next dental checkup, have your dentist offer them encouragement and explain what could happen to their teeth if they do not stop thumb sucking.
  • Cover it up - Consider bandaging your child’s thumb or putting a sock over their hand at night to remind your child of the habit.

If none of these methods work, talk to your child’s dentist or pediatrician. Depending on the severity of the condition, they might prescribe a bitter medication to coat your child’s thumb or the use of a mouth appliance.

While thumb sucking can damage your child’s teeth, it’s usually a harmless habit. Talk to your dentist if you’re concerned. Otherwise, focus on keeping your little one healthy and promoting good oral hygiene habits.


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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. This is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.

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Sources:

1. https://dentistry3000.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/dentistry3000/article/view/73, 2017
2. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/babies-and-kids/concerns (Last accessed April 2020)
3. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/aap-press-room-
media-center/Pages/Thumbsucking.aspx (Last accessed April 2020)
4. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/t/thumbsucking (Last accessed April 2020)
5. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/t/thumbsucking (Last accessed April 2020)
6. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=1&contentid=1501
7. https://dentistry3000.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/dentistry3000/article/view/73, 2017
8. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/t/thumbsucking (Last accessed April 2020)
9. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/babies-and-kids/concerns (Last accessed April 2020)
10. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/t/thumbsucking (Last accessed April 2020)

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.
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