thumb suckMost children suck their fingers at some stage. In fact, it’s the norm for 0-5 year old children, with research showing that the habit affects around 80-90% of children in this age group. There’s nothing unusual about it and humans aren’t the only mammals who suck their thumbs; Lemurs and chimpanzees do too. It’s a self-soothing reflex which develops the sucking ability necessary for breastfeeding. Nevertheless, if thumb sucking continues beyond the age of around six or seven it can have severe consequences for a child’s dental health.

Effects of thumb sucking

Thumb sucking rarely continues past the age of 5 years old. As long as your child stops thumb sucking before the onset of permanent teeth the majority of dentists will tell you that there will be no permanent damage to teeth. However, some children do continue to suck their thumbs past this age and even carry the habit into adulthood. When this happens, it can affect the shape of the oral cavity and the position of the teeth.

Young children have very soft and flexible jaw bones, relative to adults, so fingers or thumbs can reshape them over time. The most common problems include flared or protruded upper teeth and a delay in the eruption of upper and lower teeth, both of which can produce unsightly gaps. As a result, children who cannot break the thumb sucking habit develop problems with speech and chewing, which can lead to psychological problems as well.

How to combat thumb sucking

Thumb sucking can lead to lots of expensive dentistry if it begins to harm the normal growth of teeth. So if you’re worried about your child’s habit, you should first seek expert advice from someone familiar with the problem: A dentist at a reputable dental practice like Livingston Smile Design. They might recommend a “crib” – a type of brace which is placed on the upper teeth and sits on the roof of the mouth. By preventing thumbs and fingers from touching the gums behind the teeth and the roof of the mouth, a “crib” takes away the gratification of thumb sucking and is a safe and harmless way of breaking the habit.

There are plenty of other home remedies for the problem. One of the most common is to apply a bitter substance to the affected fingers, though this is not encouraged by the American Dental Association. Preventative measures usually revolve around taking away the pleasure of the activity – placing gloves on the child’s hands, or even bandages – but other methods involve a more therapeutic approach. Ask your child why they still suck their thumb and make sure they know the consequences it can have on their teeth. If your child begins sucking when they feel nervous, try to find the root of any anxiety. If your child does it out of boredom, then find ways to distract their attention with games or other activities.

So if you want your child to grow up with a smile as dazzling as New Jersey politician Cory Brooker’s, then keep an eye on their thumb sucking.


–photo credit: deb sch