Thumb sucking is a natural part of human development, and once babies find that sucking their fingers or thumbs brings them comfort, that habit can solidify into one that’s hard to break and can lead to several dental issues and even long-term health complications.

Doctors say the urge begins to generally decrease at six months, and naturally begins to fall off after three years old. Experts say that when the habit continues beyond that timeframe, tooth formation in the mouth begins to suffer.

Since this is the timeframe when children’s teeth are coming in, misalignment is the most common problem from teeth being pushed around by the fingers or pacifiers. This typically leads to additional, sometimes lengthy, orthodontic treatment methods.

Extensive thumb sucking can even lead to a narrowed jaw, shrinking airway, poor swallowing patterns and altered breathing problems. It can also lead to anterior open bite, where front teeth don’t come together, but the molars in the back do; posterior cross bite, where misalignment occurs when molars underbite and front teeth overbite; and anterior excessive overjet, where top teeth significantly hang over bottom teeth.

Regarding overall health, the roof of the mouth can become altered or more sensitive; and due to moisture overexposure, skin may crack or warp the thumbnail, eventually causing peeling, in-growth or increase infection susceptibility.

Professionals caution parents to not nag or punish children for thumb sucking, though, as it may instigate stress and further prompt the child to continue as a result. Effective methods for curtailment include explaining reasons to discontinue the process. Parents should try to eliminate stressors that could instigate the behavior, and distraction is often the best way to curtail the habit.

Being that thumb sucking is most often a bedtime activity, helping children fall asleep, experts recommend covering hands with socks so children cannot get their thumbs or fingers into their mouths. As the habit begins to drop off over time, positive reinforcement can help speed up that process.

When it comes to pacifier use, cutting the top off typically leads to the child becoming less interested, as it is not as comforting. When all else seems to fail, seek out your dental professional’s opinion about prescribing a bitter-tasting medication to put on the pacifier or thumb to further deter the action.

Call Westermeier Martin Dental care at (716) 508-4547 to schedule an appointment with your dentist.