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Oral Habits

Oral habits, including pacifier and thumb sucking, are extremely common in children. Babies and young children suck on their fingers or other objects because it provides them with the feeling of security. Sucking is a natural reflex. Some infants start sucking their fingers or thumbs even before they are born. Young babies learn by using their senses and explore the world around them by touching or mouthing objects that are colorful and fascinating.

Will the habit impact my child’s teeth and jaw?

The dental effects of nonnutritive sucking directly correlate with the frequency, intensity, duration and nature of the habit.

Between the ages 2 and 4 most children stop sucking their fingers, thumbs, or other objects. When children do not stop the habit for a longer period of time, their upper front teeth may be affected or they may need early orthodontic treatment to correct a crossbite. Thumb sucking should be completely stopped by the time permanent front teeth are ready to erupt otherwise it can cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and tooth alignment.

Keep in mind, that not all habits are equally damaging. Most will agree that aggressive suckers will have more damage than ones who passively rest their fingers in their mouth. Make sure you discuss your child’s habit with your pediatric dentist or orthodontist!

Are pacifiers safer than thumb sucking?

Pacifiers essentially have the same effect on teeth and jaws as thumb or finger sucking. The only difference is that a pacifier habit is often easier to break because it can be taken away.

Many children understand that pacifiers are for babies and are willing to give up a pacifier around 2 years old. Children who suck their thumb are often motivated to quit their habit by peer pressure at school.

How do I break the habit?

You do not have to be overly concerned about thumb sucking in very small children. Your dentist will keep a close eye on your child’s teeth and jaw development with the sucking habit kept in mind. If the habit is aggressive and frequent, your dentist may recommend intervention after the age of 3. Often times, children will break their habit on their own when they go to preschool.

When children are old enough, they may understand the possible consequences of the sucking habit if properly explained. Parents and dentists must work together to encourage the child to stop the habit. Consider rewarding your child for avoiding thumb sucking instead of scolding him or her. Get your child a thumb chart and place their thumb/finger in food dye and place a stamp by every day they don't suck their finger/thumb. Use small rewards to help keep the experience positive.

Children often suck their thumbs for comfort. Try to comfort the child so he or she does not feel the need of sucking. If the thumb sucking persists, your dentist can prescribe a mouth appliance or medication, and can recommend ways to deal with the behavior.

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