Does Thumb Sucking Really Lead to Braces?

Alpharetta, Georgia – Do you have an infant or toddler who sucks his or her thumb, or uses a pacifier? For small children it’s a normal comforting measure, but parents need to pay close attention to the habit. If extended too long, it can send the children for orthodontic treatment in their teen years.

“Many children choose to self soothe by sucking on their thumbs,” says Dr. Nima Hajibaik, an Alpharetta orthodontist. “But some children hold on to the habit for too long. And that can send them to me for braces to correct the issues that extended thumb sucking caused.”

Thumb sucking, finger sucking or the use of a pacifier puts unnecessary pressure on the teeth, as well as the bone and soft tissues of the mouth. Because these parts of the mouth are still growing, it can cause issues with jaw growth and tooth movement, sending children to their orthodontist to repair issues such as buck teeth and open bites.

“Extended thumb sucking can push the upper teeth out, resulting in what we commonly know as buck teeth,” says Dr. Hajibaik, who is also a Johns Creek surgical orthodontist. “In other cases, the front teeth might not erupt properly, which can cause an open bite. The upper and lower teeth can fail to correctly fit together, and the lower jaw may not form properly. Cross-bites can also occur from the hard tissue of the palate narrowing.”

Thumb sucking begins at a very young age, and in some cases, can even begin while the baby is still in the womb. Sucking is a natural reflex that serves an important purpose – providing the child with a sense of security and contentment. Children can become relaxed while sucking their thumb, which is why many children use this as a comfort technique when going to sleep.

The American Dental Association reports that most children will stop sucking their thumbs on their own between the ages of two and four. But for others, it can become a security habit that they simply can’t shake on their own.

“Thumb sucking and pacifier use should stop around the same time a child is weaned from bottle or breast feeding,” says Dr. Hajibaik. “Around the age of six months, a child’s natural instinct to suck begins to diminish on its own. But for other children, the habit remains to comfort them when they are tired, scared or sometimes, simply bored. But the habit should never continue once permanent teeth begin to erupt.”

Parents should pay close attention to their child’s thumb sucking habit. Your child may be a passive sucker, where the thumb simply rests gently against the mouth. If your child falls into this category, there is less of a chance for damage to occur. But if your child aggressively sucks his thumb, pressure will be placed on the mouth and teeth, leading to improper alignment and mouth and jaw growth. It can also affect the shape of the face if not stopped early enough.

Parents should take steps to help their children drop the thumb sucking habit at an early age. Dr. Hajibaik offers some tips that might help encourage your child.

  • Begin a reward system that offers a sticker or other small reward marker for each day your child doesn’t suck his or her thumb. Once the child attains a certain number of stickers, reward him with a small treat of some kind.
  • Do you have older children? Get older siblings, friends or cousins in on it, too. Have them talk to your child about what it means to be a “big kid.” Sometimes simply seeing a good example will encourage your child to stop their sucking habit.
  • Don’t be afraid to get your orthodontist involved. Many orthodontist offices are happy to offer positive reinforcement to your child to help them stop their habit.
  • In extreme cases, consider placing a safe but bad tasting substance on the child’s thumb right before his most popular sucking times. The child will associate the taste with the habit, and will stop on his own.

“One of the most important things to remember, however, is to offer your child positive reinforcement,” says Dr. Hajibaik. “Don’t get upset or overly critical as your child is trying to drop the habit. The most important thing parents can do is offer praise and encouragement.”

Children should see an orthodontist by the age of seven. At this point, Dr. Hajibaik can begin to monitor the growth of your child’s teeth and jaws, and determine the best time for treatment, if treatment is required. This is especially important if your child was an extended thumb sucker as early intervention can prevent costlier and more difficult treatment later in life.

While sucking is a normal reflex that can offer comfort to babies and small children, be sure you are closely monitoring your child’s habit, as well as how it is affecting their teeth and gums. Encourage your child to stop the habit early, and maintain regular visits with an Alpharetta orthodontist to monitor their jaw and tooth growth.