Thumbs In, Lights Out
It’s the picture of childhood innocence: A tired toddler down for a nap, holding a love-worn blanket and sucking their thumb. Whatever gets them to sleep… right, parents? However, if this sweet scenario continues for too long, it may have negative effects on your child’s teeth, speech, and jaw development.
Sucking is a reflex that is present from birth, but research shows that extended thumb-sucking may cause issues. The good news is that most children break the habit on their own, usually between age two and four. The bad news is that if they don’t, you will need to take action.
What’s the Big Deal?
All babies go through an appropriate oral stage of development. But if thumb-sucking is allowed to go on until the child’s permanent teeth begin to develop, it can block front teeth from fully erupting, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Additionally, it can cause them to push forward (overbite) or the two middle teeth toseparate (malocclusion or gap teeth). These problems sometime occur more severely on one side, since children usually suck the thumb on their dominant hand. When the thumb-sucking is particularly forceful and extends over a long period of time, those forces can even potentially impact the growth of the jaws. Speech experts also note that the habit may be a risk factor in developing an interdental lisp. This correctable articulation difficulty occurs when the tongue protrudes forward between the front teeth, causing “S” and “Z” sounds to be produced as “th”.
How to Correct
It is most important to remember that thumb-sucking is a method of self-soothing. As such, it often occurs when children need comfort, feel insecure, or are anxious. Therefore, you should focus on correcting the cause of the child’s anxiety. Unchecked oral fixation can lead to negative habits in teens and adults, including biting fingernails, comfort eating, smoking, and even alcoholism.
The ADA’s consumer site offers several tips for helping your child stop thumb-sucking, including:
- Praise for keeping their thumb out of their mouths
- Rewards for progress and success
- Seek your dentist’s help – Have Dr. Meyer or Dr. Johns explain thumb-sucking’s negative effects to your child at your next appointment.