The Damage to Your Child’s Teeth from Thumb-Sucking

When it comes to child development, thumb-sucking is a perfectly normal and beneficial method of self-soothing used throughout infancy and early childhood. However, this habit can negatively impact your child’s dental health if it continues after the teeth start to emerge from the gums. Over time, thumb-sucking can cause misalignments of the teeth and even change the shape of the jaw. These orthodontic issues will often require orthodontic treatment like braces, and in severe cases, even surgery.

If your child is still sucking his/her thumb as the permanent teeth grow in, or will not relinquish the pacifier, you may have to help break the habit in order to prevent dental problems in the future.

Understanding Why Children Suck Their Thumbs

When babies suck their thumbs or use pacifiers, they learn how to soothe themselves and relax. This form of self-soothing gives babies the ability to fall asleep on their own during naps or bedtime, and ultimately, aids in the transition from infancy to toddler.

While thumb-sucking is a common soothing behavior of small children, it can have serious side effects. Fingers or pacifiers are a physical force that can affect your child’s malleable oral tissues, influencing the way their teeth grow in and altering the overall jaw structure. Some parents may find it difficult to break their child’s comforting habit, but it should not be continued past the age range of 2 to 4 years when permanent teeth are ready to erupt.

Impact of Long-Term Thumb-Sucking

Older children who continue their thumb-sucking habit may experience serious repercussions that require orthodontic treatment or surgery to repair. As a result of prolonged thumb-sucking or pacifier use, teeth and jaw problems will occur such as:

Tooth Misalignments

When children suck their thumbs or pacifiers, the resulting pressure on the teeth can cause splaying, an outward sloping of the teeth. While movements may be subtle at first, the damage to tooth alignment is often more noticeable once the permanent teeth start to emerge.

Bite Changes

One of the most common repercussions of thumb-sucking will be evident in a child’s bite. Children who suck their thumbs or pacifiers past the age of 3 will start to develop a malocclusion, either an open bite or an overbite.

  • Open bite – An open bite occurs when the upper and lower teeth slant outward in a way that prevents them from touching when the jaw is closed. This is the most common bite malocclusion caused by thumb-sucking.
  • Overbite – An overbite happens when the upper jaw juts out over the lower jaw.

Both of these bite malocclusions can affect a person’s ability to speak clearly and may cause difficulty eating.

Narrowing of the Jaw and Palate

Your child’s jaw and upper palate can start to shift. The narrowing that occurs may even profoundly affect the shape of your child’s face as they grow. This is a type of orthodontic issue that will typically require surgery if not corrected early.

Treating Open Bite and Other Issues Caused by Thumb-Sucking

If a child can transition from thumb-sucking to a healthier coping mechanism at an early enough age, any teeth or jaw changes that were caused by thumb-sucking will usually self-correct. Unfortunately, if thumb-sucking continues past the eruption of permanent teeth, permanent changes to the teeth and jaw bone will result, and the child will likely require corrective treatment.

Parents often ask: Will my child need braces because they suck their thumb? The answer can be a little tricky without an expert orthodontist’s opinion. Orthodontists will need to take x-rays and complete an examination of your child’s mouth in order to assess the severity of the open bite, splayed teeth, and other resulting issues caused by thumb-sucking. From this assessment, an orthodontist can determine if your child would benefit from standard orthodontic treatment such as braces, or if they may need surgery.

Using Braces to Treat Thumb-Sucking Teeth Damage

For those children who have damaged their smiles from thumb-sucking, a visit to an orthodontist, like Laster Orthodontics, is in order. As the standard of care for treating significant bite problems, many orthodontists will recommend braces for children. With braces, an orthodontist can address multiple types of misalignments and jaw issues gently and accurately. This can include moving splayed teeth back into position, reversing a bite malocclusion, and correcting minor jaw or palate changes.

For younger children, sometimes early orthodontic treatment is recommended. Treatments such as two-phase orthodontic treatment can help lower the need for additional treatment later in life. The two-phase treatment can address orthodontic concerns in a way that sets your child up for a perfect smile and bite, gently and over time. Orthodontists may also use palatal expanders and other dental devices to gently coax the teeth and jaw into their natural positions. This process can range from several months to years to complete, depending on the severity of the movements caused by thumb-sucking.

How to Help Kids Stop Thumb-Sucking Before the Habit Impacts Their Dental Health

For the best results, replace this habit with healthy coping skills that allow your child to handle daily stressors without risking their dental health. With the right approach, it is possible to help kids transition away from sucking their thumbs, but it can take some time. For example, you can teach them to use belly breaths and listen to music for comfort during times they would normally suck their thumb. Starting well before your child’s baby teeth fall out can give you the time you need to prevent thumb-sucking and pacifier damage to the teeth.

If your child does not respond favorably, you can ask your orthodontist for support in changing this habit before it damages your child’s dental health. Orthodontists can place a crib device along the upper palate making thumb-sucking much less rewarding, in return helping your child break the habit. The device works by blocking the thumb from coming into contact with the palate surface, reminding your child to choose a different coping mechanism instead.

Treating Thumb-Sucking at Laster Orthodontics

Stopping thumb-sucking and pacifier use early is key in preventing an overbite, open bite, and many other dental health issues. If your child sucks their thumb into pre-adolescence, your child’s orthodontist can help you address the problem from the start and create a treatment plan to address your children’s needs.

If you are in the Triangle area of North Carolina, Laster Orthodontics can provide personalized orthodontic solutions for your child. At Laster Orthodontics, we can discuss strategies with you and your child about how to stop the thumb-sucking habit, and if necessary, design a habit breaking appliance. Laster Orthodontics can also provide treatment strategies to help realign teeth and jaws that have become affected by thumb-sucking.

At Laster Orthodontics, we help families develop healthy, life-changing smiles using customized treatments, cutting-edge technologies, and caring relationships. Our individualized treatment plans help our patients achieve their perfect smile in the quickest, most painless way possible by utilizing a wide range of options from traditional braces to Propel accelerated treatment to Dr. Laster’s in-house aligner program, Laster Perfect Smile. With three locations throughout the Triangle Area, we create life-changing smiles every day.