Thumbs Down on Thumb Sucking Habits…

thumbChildren are born with a natural sucking reflex that often evolves into a comfort behavior. It is not at all unusual for an infant or child to find a thumb or finger to calm them when tired or upset as a coping mechanism. Ultrasound scans have revealed that thumb sucking can start before birth, as early as 15 weeks from conception. Even though a sucking reflex disappears at about four months of age, some infants will continue to suck their thumb or fingers as a voluntary habit to soothe them. It helps provide a sense of security and relaxes children as they fall asleep. Thumb sucking can be one of the most comforting aspects of childhood.

According to the American Dental Association, most kids stop sucking their thumbs on their own by the ages of 2 – 4 with little if any damage as a result. The habit no longer serves its purpose, so they stop. However, children who vigorously suck their thumbs and continue to do so beyond age four risk causing damage that will require orthodontic treatment to correct. The thumb or fingers can exert unwanted pressures upon teeth, bone, and soft tissues in the mouth causing problems with positioning of teeth and growth of the jaws.

The most obvious consequences of a persistent thumb or finger habit are:
• Pushing the upper front teeth (incisors) out and the lower incisors in… resulting in the “Bucky Beaver” smile.
• Preventing the front teeth from erupting all the way together causing an openbite.
• Stopping the lower jaw from developing normally, resulting in a recessive or “weak” chin.
• Narrowing of the soft tissue in the palate of the mouth, resulting in a crossbite.

If a child doesn’t eventually stop sucking their thumbs on their own, an orthodontist can install appliances that take away the pleasing sensation children get when sucking their thumbs. However, before we recommend placement of an orthodontic appliance, we always encourage a child to stop the habit on their own.

Here are five tips Alizadeh and Schreiner Orthodontics offers parents to proactively encourage their child to stop a damaging finger habit after the age of 5. Remember, in many cases, it is just as difficult for a child to stop sucking their thumb or finger as it is for an adult to stop smoking cigarettes. Be supportive and understanding.
• 1. Explain to your child the damage their habit is causing to their mouth and teeth. Kids today are smarter than you think. They like being treated like an adult. Pictures of buck teeth and openbites go a long way helping drive home the point.
• 2. Develop a program with your child’s input to stop the habit. Let them be proactive in determining the best way to correct their own problem. They are more likely to cooperate if they have a choice in the process. Suggest aids like, wearing a sock to bed at night when they fall asleep as a reminder or sitting on their hands while driving in a car or watching TV. With some children, there is a blanket or stuffed animal that goes hand in hand with the habit. It is difficult to stop one, without removing the other. I know it sounds like a double whammy… but it is often what is needed to be successful.
• 3. Set up a calendar to track progress with a reward system at the end of every week offering small rewards. There is nothing wrong with bribing your child to stop a habit that is adverse to their dental health. With older children, offer a large reward after the habit has stopped for at least 4-6 weeks. Make the reward well worth the hard work and emotional stress it takes to stop a persistent habit.
• 4. If you notice your child relapsing, work on alleviating what is causing the stress and anxiety which causes the reaction, rather than the habit itself.
• 5. Children always respond more favorably to positive praise vs negative criticism. Instead of reminding them to stop the habit, praise them when they are proactively decreasing or eliminating the habit.

Even though the habit stopped at an early age, orthodontic treatment still may be indicated due damage prior to stopping the habit. As a parent, it is now your turn to be proactive when it comes to your child’s long term dental health. Have your child checked by an orthodontist by age 7 to determine if early orthodontic treatment is indicated to correct a skeletal growth problem caused by a thumb or finger habit by age seven.