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Thumb Sucking And The Effects on Teeth

Thumb Sucking And The Effects on Teeth

Friday, October 6th, 2017

Thumb sucking is something that most of us consider normal in babies and younger children. Usually a result of the child feeling hungry or bored, nervous or perhaps even tired, it seems to be a practice that keeps the child feeling calm and secure. In fact almost 90 percent of children between two and four will suck their thumbs.

While the practice is probably safe in children whose permanent teeth have not yet come in, for those children who continue the practice after about the age of four, there are many negative side effects to thumb sucking that all parents should be aware of to help prevent dental problems when the child gets older.

Why Do Babies and Children Suck Their Thumbs?

A child is born with a natural urge to suck. For most babies, sucking is part of how a child is breast fed. It is believed that due to the bonding process and the sucking sensation that occurs during breast feeding, when a baby sucks their thumb, they are trying to continue the soothing feeling that comes while being breast fed. And if a baby isn’t breast bed, they still have the natural instinct that thumb sucking satisfies.

Long Term Effects of Thumb Sucking

If your child is a thumb sucker, it is in the child’s best interest to stop this habit early in life, otherwise, they could experience some serious and permanent side effects.

Spread of Germs and Infections

This is one of the more obvious consequences of thumb sucking. Young children aren’t ‘germ conscious’, so wherever their little hands have been, there’s no stop at the sink to wash those hands before a child will simply plop their thumb into their mouth.

In today’s world, there are so many bad germs out there, who knows what your child’s hands have come in contact with while at say, the park, daycare, grocery store, anywhere where your child’s hands will come in contact with un-sanitized surfaces.

Unfortunately the practice of thumb sucking could cause your child to come down with any number of infections, so it is best to try and put a stop to this habit as soon as possible, especially if your child spends a lot of time away from your own home, where you can control the level of cleanliness within your home.

It’s important to note that infections can also occur in the child’s thumb as a result of the skin becoming raw and more susceptible to the effects of germs.

Changes to the Roof of the Mouth

Thumb sucking puts an undue amount of pressure on the roof of the mouth. In babies and young children, the structures within the mouth are still in a growth phase. If thumb sucking becomes constant or chronic, the shape of the roof of the mouth can change, which will have an adverse effect on the way the permanent teeth come in.

Changes to Jaw Position

Because of the mechanical motions that are involved in thumb sucking, the habit can lead to changes in the position of the jaw. Along with the potential to change the child’s bite (i.e. over bite or under bite), if the behavior is not curtailed early, the child could potentially suffer from other jaw problems such as TMJ (temporal mandibular joint disorder) later in life. And if you’ve suffered from TMJ yourself, you’ll understand how painful the condition can be, and how difficult it can be to treat.

Malocclusion (Crooked Teeth)

As noted above, chronic thumb sucking can change the structures within a child’s mouth to such an extent that permanent teeth can potentially come in crooked, crowded, or even severely bucked. On top of the social impact these issues can have for a child or teen, they are expensive to fix and can take years and years of potentially painful braces, spacers, and extractions.

Speech Difficulties

Tooth alignment problems can cause problems with speech due to certain sounds being distorted by the shape and placement of the teeth. Lisping is a common side effect of thumb sucking, as are problems properly pronouncing the letters D, L, N, S, T, and Z.

Social Side Effects

Along with the physical side effects listed above, many children who continue to suck their thumb beyond the age of four, for example a child entering Pre-K or Kindergarten and upwards, can be socially stigmatized by the habit of thumb sucking. During these early years of learning socialization skills, children need all the support they can get in learning how not to tease or be teased. Unfortunately, thumb sucking is generally perceived as a sign of “being a baby”, something that some children are teased for.

Breaking the Habit

If your child is still sucking their thumb at around age three, it’s time to being breaking the habit. While it may be difficult at first, your child can break this habit with a little help from you as a parent.

Here are some helpful tips:

Identify Triggers That Lead to Thumb Sucking

Sometimes, a child will use thumb sucking as a way of indicating to you that he or she is feeling stress or unease. Or the child may have experienced something frightening that led them back to an early childhood method of coping. In these types of situations, knowing what the triggers are, and taking extra time to offer your child reassuring words and lots of hugs can often be the solution.

Alternately, try designating a special stuffed animal as a source of comfort when your child is feeling worried, and encourage the use of the toy instead of thumb sucking.

Use Positive Reinforcement to Break the Habit

If you notice that your child is no longer sucking their thumb, offer lots of positive reinforcement. For example, if your child typically sucked their thumb at bed time, and they have corrected the behavior, offer a small reward – praise, a special sticker or toy, whatever you feel is a good reward for your child’s progress.

Use Gentle Reminders

If your child seem to be returning to the habit after making progress, offer gentle reminders of the great progress they’d previously made. Your child will appreciate that you’ve noticed their progress, and most likely will want to continue to please you and be praised, and will reduce or stop the habit.


Thumb sucking is a natural part of most baby’s lives, however if it becomes a habit that continues through childhood, it can lead to both physical and emotional problems later in life. Our Vancouver dentists can offer a variety of suggestions should you require further information about this very common activity.


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Enhance Dental Centre

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