Sucking is a natural reflex and is normal for infants and toddlers. Infants suck even when they are not hungry (a natural reflex called non-nutritive sucking) for pleasure, comfort and security. In fact, some babies begin to suck on their fingers or thumbs even before they are born. Most children stop the habit themselves between ages of 2-4. If the child does not stop, then the habit should be discouraged after age 4. A pacifier habit is easier to break at an earlier age. The earlier a sucking habit is stopped, the less chance the habit will lead to dental problems.
What effect does thumb sucking or pacifier use have on teeth?
The intensity, frequency and duration a child sucks on their thumbs or pacifier will determine whether or not dental problems may result. Here are some of the common risks associated with prolonged thumb sucking and pacifier use:
Parents may try to soothe infants by dipping pacifiers in honey, or some other sugary substance. Bacteria in the mouth feed on sugar and give off harmful acids. These acids attack tooth enamel and can lead to tooth decay.
During childhood, the structures in the mouth are very pliable. Prolonged, repeated exposure to thumb and pacifier sucking may causes the palate to molds around the sucking device or narrow. This may cause problems with developing and erupting of teeth.
Tooth movement and Jaw alignment
Growing teeth may start to tip outward or change position by thumb and pacifier sucking. Over time, pacifiers and thumbs can also guide the developing jaws out of correct alignment.
How can I help my child outgrow thumb sucking or pacifier use?
In most cases, children naturally relinquish the pacifier or thumb over time. As children grow, they develop new ways to self-soothe, relax, and entertain themselves. When thumb sucking or pacifier use persists past the age of 5, a gentle intervention may be required.
Here are some suggestions to help encourage the child to stop thumb or pacifier sucking:
Dr. Michelle will speak with your child about stopping and why it is important.
Be supportive and positive. Instead of punishing your child for thumb sucking, give praise when he or she doesn’t.
Watch for when your child sucks their thumb or pacifier (is it when they are anxious, sleepy, or watching a movie). If they are sucking their thumbs or pacifier when anxious, then try to help the child through their anxiety. If they are sucking their thumbs or pacifier during other times try to create diversions during those times.
Explain to the child why it is important to stop sucking their thumb or pacifier.
Wrap thumbs in soft cloths or mittens at nighttime.
This advice and parental support helps many children quit. However, Dr. Michelle may recommend an appliance to help children stop their habit. Remember stopping the habit will take time and patience.