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No Need to Panic Over Thumb Sucking but Do Keep an Eye on It


It's not out of the ordinary for your infant or toddler to suck their thumb. In fact, it's fairly universal and not much of a concern if it stops by age 4. If it continues, though, it could contribute to a bite problem.

Thumb sucking relates closely to a baby's swallowing pattern, thrusting their tongues forward to maintain a seal around the breast or a bottle. The habit mimics this action, providing the child a sense of security when not nursing.

Swallowing changes around age 4 as the tip of the tongue begins to move upward to the roof of the mouth just behind the upper front teeth. For most children this transition to an adult swallowing pattern signals the end of thumb sucking.

But while thumb sucking's physiological impulse may wane, some children remain emotionally attached to the habit. If they're still sucking their thumb in later childhood, the position of the thumb can place abnormal pressure on the front teeth to move outward during bite development. As a result, they could develop an open bite: Instead of the top teeth normally overlapping the bottom teeth when the jaws are shut, a gap occurs between the upper and lower teeth.

Because late thumb sucking is one of a number of factors for the development of an open bite, you should begin using positive encouragement to help your child stop the habit around ages 3 or 4 at the latest. In this vein, it's useful to use rewards or praise, especially helping them feel like a “big” boy or girl when they're not sucking their thumb.

Even if they do stop the habit early, you should still keep an eye on their developing bite by having them undergo an orthodontic evaluation around age 6. An orthodontist, who is knowledgeable in children's bite development, may be able to detect emerging problems. In some cases, it may be possible to intervene to correct the bite or prevent it from getting worse.

Taking this proactive approach about thumb sucking and partnering with your dentist to monitor their bite development could help your child avoid a poor bite. They'll less likely face more extensive orthodontic treatment in the future.

If you would like more information on the effects of thumb sucking on the bite, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “How Thumb Sucking Affects the Bite.”

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