Should parents be concerned about thumb sucking?

With a reported 80% of young children sucking their thumbs (or other fingers) at some point in their lives, it would seem that it’s quite normal. And it is—sucking habits are perfectly normal in infancy as they will suck on anything brought in contact with the lips. It is an adaptive reflex behaviour common to mammals and may last for several years. However it is only normal until dental problems present as a result from intense and persistent digit sucking.

A child who thumb-sucks occasionally and soon grows out of it will most likely not develop any tooth or dental problems as a result. But children who begin sucking their thumbs from an early age, and continue to do so as the permanent teeth come in, may develop problems with tooth alignment and even the shape of roof of the mouth. Generally, if the habit is continued beyond six years of age (when the permanent teeth erupt) it will almost always impact the position of the teeth and jaw.

This kind of prolonged thumb sucking can push the upper front teeth out of alignment, so they don’t meet the lower teeth correctly when biting. This condition is called a malocclusion. Buck teeth are when the upper teeth spread out from each other, with gaps in between. Another type of malocclusion is known as open bite, in which the upper and lower teeth do not meet at all and the tongue protrudes into the space between. Damage to the mouth’s roof structure can also occur. Speech problems such as lisping can show up along with these abnormal dental conditions.

Orthodontic treatment may be required to correct advanced problems such as these. But prevention is usually the best treatment. Parents should pay attention to their child’s thumb-sucking habits. Occasional and mild indulgence in thumb sucking is usually not a cause for concern. Similarly, if the habit is discontinued by age two-three years, no permanent malformation with occur. But if your child’s thumb sucking habit is persistent and intense, it’s best to take steps to control this behaviour sooner rather than later.

Folk remedies such as putting socks on the child’s hands at bedtime can help, as long as the habit is not too deeply ingrained. Application of an adhesive tape or band-aid to the finger can also be a useful trick. In many instances this changes the character of the finger sufficiently to call the child’s attention to the fact that it is being placed in the mouth. Chemical therapy employs either hot-tasting, bitter-flavoured preparations or distasteful agents that are applied to the fingers or thumbs. Such things as cayenne pepper, quinine and asafoetida have been used to make the thumb and fingers so distasteful the child will keep them out of their mouth! Again these methods are most effective if the habit is not firmly entrenched.

The majority of older children who continue thumb sucking, have what is termed an empty habit—it is something they have always done. These children are usually receptive to reasons why they should stop and many actually want to give up. Since children who suck their thumbs persistently often do so out of stress or boredom, correcting the underlying stressors may be advised. In these cases, consulting a professional who deals with behavioural issues will pay off with a happier child and fewer dental problems in the long run.

Over 200+


Invest in your smile and health, for now and the future

When you choose Bite Dental, you’re investing in your smile and long-term dental health and hygiene. Take advantage of our new patient offer and discover why you’ll love Bite Dental.

Or call us on 07 3221 5399