How Does Thumb-Sucking or Pacifier Use Affect the Bite?

Thumb sucking can be dangerous for developing children

Alpharetta, GA – Watching your baby suck his thumb or a pacifier to calm himself can be heartwarming. True, there’s nothing more rewarding than finally getting your baby to sleep after an all-nighter and calming them down. Taking care of newborns is exhausting, but the comfort you’re getting from your baby feeling drowsy after getting their pacifier may not be as benign as you might think. In fact, many parents wonder when these natural reflexes stop providing calming benefits and start causing problems with their child’s bite.

Thumb sucking is perfectly normal for infants. Children discover their hands and use them to bring anything they grab towards their mouths, including their own fingers. Most toddlers will stop this habit by age 2, and experts agree that parents should discourage the habit entirely if it persists by age 4. If this is your case, you might want to talk to an expert to receive counseling and help your child beat this potentially dangerous habit.

A habit that continues beyond this age creates the risk of problems with teeth alignment and the growth of the mouth, according to the American Dental Association. It can alter the roof of the mouth, too, bringing about additional complications with the child’s speech development, eating habits, and breathing.

The potential harm caused partially is usually proportional to how vigorously a child sucks his thumb or a pacifier. Simply resting the thumb in the mouth is likely to cause less damage than an aggressive thumb sucker.

Do Pacifiers Mess up Baby Teeth?

Prolonged and uncontrolled use of a pacifier can have negative effects on your child’s dental health. Also, as dentists trained in pediatrics, we must warn parents that these problems go beyond the child’s dental health and could cause other problems with their development.

What Happens to Your Teeth When You Suck Your Thumb?

The same principles apply to thumb sucking. In and of itself, thumb sucking is not a bad habit, but repeatedly recurring to the habit can cause several problems. As the baby constantly sucks on their thumb, they create a vacuum that pulls everything in their mouth inward. This force, applied over long periods, can cause dental malalignment of primary and permanent teeth.

Thumb Sucking can also bring about some problems with a baby's development

What Is Better for Infants, Pacifiers or Thumbsucking?

Neither of these habits is necessarily bad. As with most things during a child’s development, the dangers are usually related to excesses. Too much sugar? That’s a problem. Too much fluoride in their toothpaste? That’s another problem. Too much thumbsucking or pacifier use? Both will be problems.

Neither are perfect, though both are excellent responses to your child’s natural instincts. Around the 5th month, your child will seek to suck on anything they can bring to their mouth. A pacifier can increase the risk of ear infections, but thumb-sucking may bring germs to your baby’s mouth.

But then again, these are not all too bad. Let’s see some of the positives and then some negatives.

Pacifier use can be beneficial for some kids

What Thumb-Sucking and Pacifier Use Do Right

  1. Encouraging self-soothing in babies. PAcifiers can help your child self-soothe, which means they can grant parents a much-desired rest. These pacifiers can help relax kids who would otherwise be too anxious or active.
  2. Helps wean off the baby. Pacifiers serve as an in-between to help wean a nursing baby; however, establishing this routine will take some time, and you should prioritize nursing over introducing a pacifier.
  3. Can reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). This is a big one, as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does encourage sending your baby to bed with a pacifier, though one that isn’t attached to the baby’s clothes or held by a necklace, as it could become a choking hazard.

Orthodontic Concerns

Aggressively sucking the thumb, fingers, or a pacifier beyond age 4 means children run the risk of altering their bite. The upper teeth slightly overlap the lower when in a proper bite pattern. Sucking habits can prevent that from happening and create what is known in orthodontics as an “open bite.” The back molars may touch when the jaws are closed, but the front teeth don’t.

The constant presence of a thumb, finger, or pacifier in the mouth while the two front adult teeth erupt can cause them to come in improperly. They can be crowded or out of alignment.

Tongue Issues

Thumb sucking can lead to abnormal tongue rest and functional patterns in children, according to RDH magazine. It also can alter breathing and cause children to keep their lips open when their mouths are at rest.

When a child has his thumb or finger in his mouth for long time periods, it can cause his tongue to rest in a downward and forward position instead of on the roof of the mouth.

Receding Gums and Cavities

In some cases, and this is not the majority, pacifier use led to gingival recession, loss of gum tissue, and the onset of periodontal disease. Certainly, these were also the result of imbalances in the baby’s diet and excess reliance on sweets to soothe the child, but they still illustrate the potential dangers of prolonged reliance on a pacifier.

Skin Problems

Even parts of your child’s skin can suffer adverse reactions to chronic thumb or finger sucking. This habit can lead to skin or cuticle infections, as well as calluses on the thumb/finger from the pressure being exerted, according to RDH magazine.

Eliminating the Habit

We look for signs of problems at your child’s dental checkups, but please tell us if you are concerned that your child’s thumb-sucking or pacifier habit may lead to dental problems down the road. We are happy to share information on how to encourage your child to break the habit. Appliances also are available for children who have difficulty quitting on their own.

© 2022 Polkadot Pediatric Dentistry.  Authorization to post is granted, with the stipulation that Polkadot Pediatric Dentistry in Alpharetta, GA, is credited as sole source. 

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