Thumbsucking can be damaging

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Thumbsucking can be damaging – When a calming habit can hurt your teeth

Only very few among us did not do it when we were small children. Whether to calm ourselves or to make falling asleep easier – sucking on our thumbs seemed to be the way to go. Unfortunately, all too often, we were also scolded by the parents who kept telling us that food and drinks – but not our thumbs – belong in our mouths. So why did they always make such a big deal out of thumbsucking and why do so many children start doing it early on in their lives in the first place? All good questions that deserve answers.

Why do children suck on their thumbs?

All of us are born with an instinctive sucking reflex that allows us to more effectively seek out and ingest break milk to help us grow out of the toddler development stage as quickly as possible. This natural reflex remains quite prominent within a fair number of children even after the breastfeeding stage and manifests itself in the form of thumbsucking which can have a calming effect on those children. Over the past few decades, many parents successfully managed to steer their children away from their thumbs and towards pacifiers. Nevertheless, even nowadays, thumbsucking remains a quite widely spread phenomenon.

According to leading psychologists, thumbsucking during the first two years of a child’s life should not alarm young parents because the youngling is very likely to stop engaging in this activity by him- or herself over time as the natural sucking reflex lets up and he or she discovers more interesting and attention-grabbing activities. However, should the habit persist well into the child’s third year, parents should take action to make sure that thumbsucking does not become the child’s number one coping mechanism for stress. As a rule of thumb (no pun intended), parents should aim to wean their children from thumbsucking well ahead of the emergence of their baby teeth to prevent tooth misalignments and the formation of a potentially psychologically inhibiting habit. 

How does thumbsucking affect a child’s teeth?

In short: not good!

The most significant differences between sucking on a monther’s breast versus sucking on a thumb are the duration of the activity and the intensity of the pressure that is exerted on the still forming jaws of the young child. While breastfeeding is usually relatively time-constrained, thumbsucking can continue uninterrupted for many hours on any given day. Also, a female nipple is significantly softer than a thumb (or even a pacifier). As a result, thumbsucking not only puts more intense pressure on a young child’s jaws but also does so over a longer time frame which may exacerbate any potential misalignments of the child’s baby teeth when they grow out of the gum line. According to professional estimates, thumbsucking nowadays accounts for up to 40% of orthodontic procedures performed on children and young adults. The main reason for this is the fact that any baby tooth misalignments that were caused by thumbsucking can translate over to a child’s permanent teeth and thereby cause significantly longer-lasting problems, such as:

  • Tooth gaps
  • Obstructed path through the gum line for the front teeth
  • “Abocclusion” which can cause lisps and difficulties when biting down
  • Long-term difficulties with swallowing caused by malpositioning of the tongue
  • More frequent breathing through the mouth (which increases the risk of catching a cold)
All of these (and many more) potential consequences of excessive and persistent thumbsucking can lead to an array of protracted and costly orthodontic procedures.

Pacifiers are a slightly better alternative to the human thumb because of their softer material. However, parents should not tolerate pacifiers for too long either to prevent their children from developing longer-term habits that will then become much more difficult to break. 
How can I break my child’s habit of thumbsucking?
Firstly, it is interesting to note that several scientific studies have shown that breastfed children are less likely to seek refuge in thumbsucking than those who were fed via bottles. Therefore, it is advisable for young mothers to not rush their children through the breastfeeding stage. Should a child still turn to thumbsucking, parents can fortunately draw on quite a few proven techniques to break this habit.  

Children who have become accustomed to sucking on their thumbs or on pacifiers over the first few years of their lives tend to have quite intense adverse reactions to forceful attempts to break these habits. To avoid such potentially traumatic experiences from happening, behavioral experts recommend the use of slower, yet steadier habit-breaking strategies that involve diversion and rewards rather than punishment. Here is a list with a few examples:

  • Stories / bedtime stories / lullabies
  • Calm and relaxing music / radio plays
  • Consultations with child psychologists (for more severe cases)
Fortunately, all of these habit-breaking measures have been tested and proven and can help almost every child with a smooth transition out of the thumbsucking phase. Well, that sounds promising – now let us just make sure to not forget to regularly and diligently brush our teeth!

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