As parents, we are responsible for every aspect of our child’s health and development, which leaves us with a lot to worry about. One concern for many parents is the effect on their child’s teeth from thumb sucking. Will it really lead to misaligned teeth and a malformed palate as the images thrown up by an internet search of thumb sucking teeth would suggest, or is it merely a harmless childhood habit as some people claim?

What is normal behavior?

Any form of oral self-soothing, such as thumb or finger sucking or pacifier use, by an infant or toddler is perfectly normal and not something to be worried about. This behavior is observable even in the womb and is a natural reflex in younger children. Thumb sucking or pacifier use help your child feel safe and secure even when you’re not around and, according to developmental psychologists, helps children to become more self-confident and independent. It also induces sleep, which, as all parents know, is definitely a good thing.

When does it become a problem?

If you’ve seen a child of five or older sucking their thumb, you’ve probably thought that it seems a bit inappropriate, and you’d be right. The American Dental Association says thumb sucking after the age of four could cause serious, even permanent, problems with your child’s teeth.

The pressure caused by sucking will start to affect the formation of the mouth, possibly causing teeth to be misaligned and leaving your child with an open bite, where the teeth of the upper and lower jaw don’t meet. This would need to be corrected by wearing braces, possibly for years, which is not something you want to put your child or yourself through.


How to discourage the habit?

Most children will grow out of the habit themselves by the age of four. Growing self-awareness, combined with peer pressure and social observation allows kids to figure out that the habit is no longer acceptable and give it up without any intervention from their parents. If the behavior continues after kindergarten, you’ll have to step in and help your child quit.

The best way to do this is through education and positive reinforcement.

Here are a few things you can do to support your child:

  • Ask your child’s dentist to explain the reasons why they should stop and the positive effects it will have.
  • Establish a system of tracking and rewarding your child’s progress.
  • Praise and encourage every attempt to stop.

These simple steps should be enough to break the habit. If your child persists, try placing a sock, bandage or glove on the preferred hand. In extreme cases your dentist could recommend a device called a “crib” which is placed on the roof of the mouth. Remember though, that positive reinforcement is your best weapon. Thumb sucking relieves stress, so making your child anxious by scolding or nagging them will only aggravate the problem.

If you have an older child who is still sucking their thumb, the habit needs to be stopped as soon as possible and any changes it has made to the skeletal structure of the mouth corrected. The earlier this is done, the better the chance that the damage can be reversed so book an appointment today to avoid monthly visits in the future.