It’s adorable when you see your little baby snoozing comfortably in their crib with their tiny thumb in their mouth. Yet, a lot of parents also feel a pang of worry. Will thumb sucking ruin my child’s teeth? Should I stop my baby from sucking their thumb? Am I going to have to spring for a decade of braces to fix their smile one day? Well, take a deep breath because the good news is, a baby sucking their thumb is absolutely nothing to worry about. The same goes for pacifiers. However, once they do get older, if the pacifier or thumb sucking habit continues, there can be concerns. As Mustang, Norman and OKC orthodontists, we get asked a lot about oral habits, which is why we’re sharing our guide to pacifiers, thumb sucking and teeth.

What’s Considered “Normal” for Thumb Sucking?

All babies are born with a natural sucking reflex. In fact, many of them even suck their fingers and thumbs in the womb! So it is normal for newborns and infants to comfort themselves by sucking on their thumb or a pacifier, if you offer one. It gives them a sense of security and often helps them fall asleep at night. Some pediatricians even encourage giving a pacifier because in certain studies it’s been tied to a reduction in SIDS.

While with a pacifier, many times, parents stop the habit by taking it away, with a thumb since it’s attached to the body, it’s a little more difficult. However, even then, most children will stop on their own between the ages of two and four. So, if your toddler is still popping his or her thumb in their mouth during times of stress or when they’re dozing off, it is considered normal.

When Should Parents Be Concerned About Thumb Sucking?

If kids are still sucking their thumb after the age of four or so and your efforts to get them to stop thumb sucking aren’t working, then it’s a good idea to talk to their pediatric dentist. Additionally, while passive thumb sucking (i.e., just placing the thumb in the mouth) isn’t typically a huge worry in young kids, aggressive sucking is more likely to cause issues. You can tell that a child’s thumb sucking is intense if they vigorously suck their thumb or there are popping noises when they take their thumb out of their mouth.

How do Pacifier and Thumb Sucking Affect Teeth?

Vigorous thumb sucking that puts pressure on the teeth and palate or prolonged thumb sucking can create orthodontic issues. Prolonged pacifier use can have a similar effect on the teeth. These habits may lead to changes in the roof of the mouth and misaligned teeth and jaws, resulting in issues like an open bite or protruding front teeth. These problems are much more likely to occur if a pacifier or thumb sucking habit continues when a child is starting to get their permanent teeth.

How to Stop Thumb Sucking in Kids

If at age three or four, your kiddo is still sucking their thumb or using a pacifier, it is a good idea to try to encourage them to stop. Here are some ways you can help:

  • For a pacifier, tell your child ahead of time that it’s going away on a certain date so they’re prepared. Then, take it away. If you don’t have the heart to do it cold turkey, you can also wean children off the pacifier. Start by limiting pacifier use to only when they’re at home, and then just for naps and bedtime and then, finally, only at bedtime until they’re less reliant on it and you’re able to eliminate it completely.
  • Praise your child when they don’t suck their thumb or use their pacifier. You can also offer positive reinforcement. You can try letting them choose a movie to watch on family movie night or having them place a sticker on a sticker chart if they reach certain predetermined goals like not sucking their thumb for two hours before bed.
  • Since kids often suck their thumb when they’re anxious, be proactive about anxiety-inducing situations or things. Identify triggers, get to the root of the problem and offer comfort. You can also try to teach them alternative coping mechanisms like reaching for a favorite stuffed animal or talking to mommy and daddy.
  • Scolding is not effective for stopping thumb sucking. In fact, it can make the problem worse. Instead, offer gentle reminders if you notice your child subconsciously falls back on their thumb sucking habit.
  • In addition to verbal reminders, having your child wear a sock on their hand or bandaging their thumb when they go to bed can be a good way to nix the habit at night if they’re doing it without thinking. It just serves as a reminder.
  • Enlist the help of your pediatric dentist. If you’re not having success helping your child break their pacifier or thumb sucking habit on your own, ask your dentist for help. They can talk with your child about why it’s important to stop and they can offer you guidance. Sometimes, kids are more apt to listen when the advice doesn’t come from their parents.
  • If all else fails, habit-breaking appliances are an option. They block the thumb from coming into contact with the back of the upper front teeth, which makes it less enjoyable and acts as a reminder not to do it. As an orthodontist, we can place habit-breaking appliances. They’re not painful and they’re effective when nothing else seems to work.

If you have more questions about thumb sucking and teeth or you’ve noticed orthodontic issues emerge in your child after years of sucking their thumb or using a pacifier, schedule a complimentary consultation at Craig & Streight Orthodontics today!