Common medical questions and answers through blogs and articles

Does Thumb Sucking Damage Teeth?

“Do all kids suck their thumb, or is my kid unusual?” asks a worried mom, but the pediatrician assures her it is normal for most babies and toddlers to suck their thumbs, in fact, they also like to suck on their fingers, hands, or items such as pacifiers, especially while they are teething.  Generally, most children stop sucking their thumb on their own at age 3 to 6 years.

For adults, who are taught at an early age to keep germy hands off the face, especially during cold and flu season, the idea of thumb-sucking and the spread of germs is pretty horrifying, especially if you are a germaphobe.

Why do Babies Suck Their Thumbs?

Babies have a natural urge to suck, and this urge usually decreases after the age of 6 months.  Many babies continue sucking their thumbs as a means to soothe themselves and continue the habit as toddlers, as a means to comfort themselves when they feel hungry, afraid, restless, quiet, sleepy, or are bored.

How Long Is It “Socially Acceptable” For a Child to Suck Their Thumb?

Children go through a range of emotions growing up.  They are fond of clamming up and just comforting themselves if they are shy or afraid of something, or someone.   But any thumb-sucking after age 5 usually traces its origin to an emotional problem or anxiety disorder, so, an appointment with a pediatrician and a dentist should be in order.  For your child’s first all-important dental visit, consider contacting a general dentist.

Thumb-Sucking Causes Dental Issues

For kids who engage in thumb-sucking past age 5, there is more at stake than parental chiding, or teasing by the child’s peers, because children who suck their thumb at age 5 are at risk for dental or speech problems.  This is because prolonged thumb-sucking may cause the teeth to become improperly aligned (malocclusion) and cause the teeth to push outward.  If the thumb-sucking habit is stopped timely, there is no damage to teeth, but,  the longer that the pesky thumb-sucking continues, the more likely it is that orthodontic treatment will eventually be needed and speech problems, associated with the thumb-sucking habit, might include lisping, thrusting out the tongue when talking and not being able to say “Ts” and “Ds”.

Rather than shame your child about their thumb-sucking, try to encourage them not to put their thumb in their mouth and give them a little reward each time they remember not to do so.

Pacifier use is akin to thumb-sucking in that it may affect the child’s oral health by interfering with normal tooth and jaw development.  If possible, thwart your child’s use of a pacifier after age 1 to safeguard baby teeth.

Preventative Maintenance Is Necessary

Preventative maintenance for your little one’s teeth is important.  The American Dental Association encourages you to make your baby’s first dental visit six months after their first tooth appears and no later than their first birthday.   At that initial visit, your baby’s dentist will look for cavities, and/or other oral problems, assess tooth decay risk, and instruct you on the proper ways to clean your baby’s teeth.  Thereafter, regular check-ups should be scheduled for every six months, unless there is increased risk of tooth decay, which may necessitate more frequent visits.  There are precautions you need to take for your baby’s teeth long before that initial dental visit.

Break The Habit

New mothers who are breastfeeding their babies, should be mindful that once a baby’s teeth begin to show, middle-of-the-night feedings could be detrimental to your baby’s dental health.  Lactose, the main sugar in breast milk, will provide 40% of a breastfed baby’s calories, but, when a baby is breastfed at night, their teeth are exposed to that sugar.  Therefore, moms who breastfeed must wipe each baby tooth off after feeding to avoid dental decay.

Likewise, for babies who are put to bed with a bottle, or are allowed to have access to a “sippy cup” all day, if the mouth isn’t cleaned, sugar from milk (or even sugary drinks like juice) will remain on the teeth for a long time at night and can eventually destroy tooth enamel.

Brushing Your Teeth Is Fun

Encouraging your child to brush is good, but until they can remember to spit and not swallow the toothpaste, use a non-fluoride paste or gel and a fluoride supplement.  Swallowing too much fluoridated toothpaste can cause fluorosis, a condition that creates white or brown spots on children’s’ teeth.

Chewing on Pencils, Pens And Fingernails

Children often have a tendency to stick things into their mouth.  But, chewing on a pen or pencil while at school, or while doing homework, can lead to the wearing away of tooth surfaces. Likewise, for gnawing on fingernails.  The child who is a nail biter may end up developing bruxism, a medical term for grinding the teeth.  Bruxism can eventually cause facial pain and wearing down of tooth enamel.

You can never be too proactive when it comes to your child’s dental care.

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