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Thumb Sucking Long Term Effects

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A close-up of a baby thumb-sucking.

It’s a natural sucking reflex for babies to put their fingers or thumb into their mouths. And while it’s cute to watch babies and younger children use it as a soothing mechanism, thumb-sucking can develop into a habit and affect their oral health. 

Caring for your baby’s dental health can start earlier than you think, even before their first tooth erupts. And even though baby teeth eventually fall out, the space they hold in a child’s mouth guides permanent teeth in the right spot.

While many children often stop self-pacifying when they reach 4 years, others do not. If thumb-sucking continues beyond age 5 or when a child’s permanent teeth come in, it can lead to dental problems— affecting the roof of the mouth and how the teeth line up. 

Our dentists are happy to address concerns you may have about your child’s oral health with tailored solutions. For thumb-sucking, we provide insight into its long-term effects, what it means for your child’s oral health, and when and how to break the habit. 

Your Child’s Oral Health

A surprising fact about baby teeth is that they are already in your child’s jaw at birth. Around 6 months of age, they begin to erupt from the gums, referred to as teething. During this time and even after teeth erupt, it’s important to clean your child’s mouth to maintain good oral health. 

Around 2 or 3 years, all 20 baby teeth should be out, although this can vary in children. Permanent or adult teeth usually begin to come in by 6 years and continue until age 13 with 28 teeth. Wisdom teeth grow later. 

Because teething can be uncomfortable, babies tend to suck on their fingers or thumbs. Young children usually stop once they reach school age, although some continue because of comfort or to cope with anxiety. 

Long-Term Effects of Thumb Sucking

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1 in 5 children will still suck a thumb or finger past their 5th birthday, and this can permanently change the shape of their mouth, including the position of teeth and lips. 

Here are possible long-term effects or complications of thumb sucking that puts constant pressure and causes teeth to shift:

  • Overbite: The front teeth protrude out from the jaw and mouth.
  • Open bite: Top and bottom teeth don’t meet when the mouth is closed.
  • Other bite issues are where the bottom teeth tip inward toward the back of the mouth. 
  • A thumb against the roof of the mouth (palate) can cause a high narrow arched roof.
  • Sensitivity of the roof of the mouth.
  • Changes in jaw shape can affect the alignment of teeth and speech patterns, such as a lisp
  • Can lead to abnormal tongue patterns.
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Strategies to Discourage Thumb Sucking

Children’s adult teeth don’t usually come out until age 6. But with constant thumb-sucking, damage can already be done to the mouth. For this reason, children should see their dentist before age 1 and regularly after that based on recommendations by their dentist.

If thumb sucking affects the growth and development of your child’s teeth and jaw, you may want to help them stop. You can try one of these strategies:

  • Talk to your child about thumb sucking and choose a method together to limit the time they suck, such as only bedtime or nap time. 
  • If they suck their thumb to get attention, sometimes giving no attention is enough to stop the behaviour. 
  • Don’t point out to your child when they suck their thumb. Instead, use positive reinforcement or praise when they aren’t sucking their thumbs. 
  • If your child sucks their thumb for comfort or in response to stress or anxiety, identify the triggers and provide other forms of comfort, such as hugs or a stuffed animal. 
  • If your child continues unconsciously out of habit and wants to stop, keep them on track with gentle reminders not to suck their thumb. 
  • You can use orthodontic devices or thumb shields if your child is comfortable with this method. 
A close-up of a young girl showing her overbite teeth due to thumb sucking for a long time.

Curb Thumb Sucking with Maplebrook Dental

Vigorous childhood thumb-sucking can cause or worsen dental problems. While parents can help their child stop thumb-sucking, dentists can help too. 
Don’t hesitate to contact our friendly and welcoming team at Maplebrook Dental if you have concerns about thumb sucking and your child’s teeth. 

Written by Fotini Molnar

Dr. Fotini Molnar started her dental experience working as a dental assistant in a co-op program during high school. She went on to complete her Bachelor of Science, majoring in biotechnology at York University and then obtained her Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree from the University of Toronto. Prior to her career in dentistry, Dr. Molnar researched neuroblastoma at Sick Kids Hospital.
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