Thumb sucking - A common oral activity

One of the most common oral activities of the young child is thumb and finger sucking.  Sucking habits are perfectly normal in infancy and can be ignored at this stage.
Thumb sucking that discontinues by age 3-4 years produces no permanent displacement of the teeth. If it continues beyond the age of 6-7 years, once the permanent incisors (front teeth) erupt, it can then cause an abnormal bite.

The type of bite which can develop is called an ‘openbite’.  This is where the top and bottom teeth do not bite together and the front teeth are protruded (pushed forward).
Some children suck their thumb when they are tired, watching TV, bored, or stressed.  Usually the sucking stops once school is started where peer pressure helps reduce  this habit.
Stress
Occasionally, the thumb sucking habit may start at an older age. In this case, changes in circumstances - stress at home, moving locations or changing schools can be initiating factors. Addressing these factors directly will reduce the habit.

 

o   Often simple encouragement and explanation of the effect of thumb sucking on the teeth will help for older children.  The child’s own desire to break the habit means they react positively to such encouragement.  The explanation sometimes is taken better when it comes from someone else eg: dentist or GP.

o   Try to ignore the sucking habit and not draw attention to it; instead praise your child when they are not thumb sucking.  Daily reward charts can be drawn, where points are given when they are not sucking to reinforce positive behaviour.  Once points reach a certain amount a treat (preferably, sugar-free  may be offered.

o   Placing a distasteful solution on the nails to help keep the thumb/finger out of the mouth - such as anti-nail biting nail polish. 
This is effective for some children where the habit is not firmly entrenched.

Adhesive tape
A simple way to control the habit is placing adhesive tape or bandaid to the thumb or finger.  This helps change the sensation of the finger enough to call the child’s attention to the fact that it is being placed in the mouth. 

Even more effective ...
An even more effective way is to tape the thumb and hand together during times when thumbsucking is likely to occur (ie: watching TV).

Thumbsucking is subconcious

When all else fails and the teeth are being pushed out significantly a simple orthodontic plate can be made which is made to fit securely in the mouth to act as a reminder of the habit.   This is important because in many instances thumb and finger sucking habits are at the subconscious level of the child’s attention. 
Sometimes even though the child wants to stop the habit, they may find it difficult to do so unless they are made aware of it. The plate is kept in the mouth until the habit stops and for three months after.

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If the bite is severely affected by the habit, braces are needed when the child is older (around age 11-12 years). 

© Kidz Teeth | Specialist Paediatric Dentists - Auckland, New Zealand