When children have their pediatric dental exam at St. Lawrence Dentistry, parents often ask us whether their child’s thumb sucking habit is normal.

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Babies are born with a natural reflex to suck, it’s natures way of ensuring food intake. Sucking is also soothing and tends to induce sleep, as evidenced by the way young infants drift off to sleep as they suck at a bottle or breast. Fussy babies often learn to soothe themselves by sucking on their thumb. Some parents encourage this in young babies, because the thumb is always available, unlike a pacifier which can be lost, causing distress for the infant who can’t get the pacifier back in its mouth. Other parents prefer to use a pacifier, partly because they think it will be easier to break the pacifier habit than thumb-sucking. The later is partly practiced because even newborns can be given a pacifier, but are not yet coordinated enough to get their thumb in their mouth on demand.

Although there are many benefits of natural thumb sucking in toddlers, it can have it drawbacks. Vigorous sucking of a pacifier or a digit can push the upper front teeth out of their natural alignment, although this is more likely to occur with a digit habit. Most pacifiers are designed by dentists to try and avoid orthodontic issues. Changes in tooth position due to thumb sucking is based on three things: 1) Duration 2) Intensity and 3) Frequency. Children who use their thumb for longer periods of time are more likely at risk for dental changes than those who suck their thumb for short periods of time. Those who suck their thumb harder will show more changes to the position of their front teeth than those who just rest their thumb in their mouth for comfort. Finally if a child is sucking their thumb several times during the day and night, their teeth are more likely to move than someone who just soothes themselves to bed with their thumb for a couple of minutes at night.

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The changes that can occur due to thumb sucking include:

  1. Flaring of the upper front teeth.
  2. Changes to the size and shape of the upper jaw resulting in a smaller jaw size and cross-bites of the back teeth.
  3. Spacing between the upper front teeth.
  4. Difficulty with speech.
  5. Difficulty chewing.

Most toddlers stop a digit habit on their own between two and four, and up until this age, it is not recommended to make an issue of it. By the age of four, however, parents should begin to work with the child to break the habit. Children who are still sucking their thumbs when their permanent teeth erupt can cause damage to their teeth.

If you live in the Mississauga area and you see your child’s thumb sucking habit being prolonged past age 5 you may want to consider talking to Dr. Hawryluk. He can discuss ways that may help remedy this issue on its own, such as positive reinforcements for your child. Simply having your child talk directly to the dentist on their own and having them make a promise to our office to stop can sometimes actually work. Sometimes they just need to hear they must stop from someone other than their parents. It is easier to break a pacifier habit than thumb-sucking, because the thumb is always handy, while the parent is able to remove the pacifier. The easiest way to break a pacifier habit is in small steps. Keep it out of sight; remind the child that they are big kids. Use it only when sleeping, then remove at nap time, and use only at night, then never. In order to break the thumb-sucking habit, the parent needs to monitor the child, using encouragement and praise. Help your child to overcome insecurity by making sure they know you are on their side, and you are doing this together, not being demanding or impatient.

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In cases where a child cannot stop on their own and the habit is causing malposition of their teeth, Dr.Hawryluk may refer you to Hometown Orthodontics in Port Credit. The orthodontist may may a ‘habit breaking appliance’. Some of these appliances are comfortable reminders for your child to stop the habit, whereas others are less so and may be used when a child is very unwilling to stop on his/her own.

We hope you have found this article helpful. If you live in the Mississauga area and your child or yourself needs a dentist, please consider visiting St. Lawrence Dentistry. We are in Port Credit at the Hurontario / Lakeshore intersection and have lots of free parking. Our number is 905-278-1649click here.