Most children suck their thumbs at some point in their life. While most grow out of the habit around 6 or 7 months of age, most stop on their own before they start preschool. However, a small percentage of children continue sucking their thumbs beyond age four.
For infants, thumb or finger sucking is perfectly normal. Infants have a natural sucking reflex which can be observed in the womb. This sucking reflex not only helps your infant eat, but it also provides a level of comfort and can help your child feel secure.
The American Dental Association recommends that children stop sucking their thumbs by age four to prevent any long term negative effects to their oral development. Aside from the potential for teasing from classmates and the risk of illness from putting dirty thumbs into their mouths, the dangers of thumb sucking can have long-lasting negative consequences for their dental health. Children who suck their thumbs past the age of four risks affecting the correct development of their mouth and jaw. This damage can change the future placement of permanent teeth, which can require extensive orthodontic treatment to correct when they are older.
One of the most common consequences of extended thumb sucking is an open bite. An open bite is where the front teeth do not come together. The technical term for this condition is a malocclusion. Malocclusion is when misaligned teeth are visible when the mouth is closed, which is often due to the top and bottom front teeth protruding forward.
Another common complication of thumb sucking is an overbite. Similar to malocclusion, overbite is when the front teeth protrude forward. An overbite is different from an open bite in that an overbite is limited to the top front teeth.
Children who suck their thumbs are also at risk for skin issues. When exposed to moisture from the mouth, skin on the thumbs can become vulnerable to injury and infection. The pressure from sucking on the thumb can cause the thumbnail to become warped, cause ingrowing of the nail or peeling.
Some children who suck their thumbs can also experience speech issues. Thumb sucking can alter the formation of the jaw, palate, and teeth, which can lead to lisping and other speech impediments.
To minimize these issues, the ADA recommends a few tactics to parents to help your child stop sucking their thumb:
• Praise a child for not sucking, instead of reprimanding for doing it.
• Because sucking can result from feeling insecure, address the “cause of the anxiety and comfort the child.”
• Provide rewards when a child avoids sucking.
• Ask a dentist to help during a regular checkup or special visit by encouraging the child and explaining what may happen to the teeth if the child’s habit continues.
If you have any concerns about your child’s thumb-sucking habit, take them to see a dentist sooner rather than later. Taking infants and young children to the dentist for regular dental check-ups can help get them used to going to the dentist and prevent any anxiety as well as identify any concerns early.