Pacifiers, Thumb Sucking and Teeth: A Parents’ Guide

By March 7, 2019 General
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As Park Slope and Williamsburg pediatric dentists, we get a lot of questions along the lines of, “Will thumb sucking hurt my baby’s teeth?” or, “Will using a pacifier cause orthodontic issues?” Babies are born with a sucking reflex and they actually start sucking on their thumbs or fingers in the womb. Sucking on a pacifier has even been tied to a decreased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). So, if your newborn or infant sucks on their thumb, fingers or uses a pacifier, it’s completely normal and could actually be a good thing during their early life. That being said, when the habit continues beyond a certain point, particularly if it’s vigorous, it can lead to dental problems. Here’s what you should know about pacifiers, thumb sucking and teeth.

What Age Should Kids Stop Sucking Their Thumb or Using a Pacifier?

It’s perfectly okay to allow newborns and infants to suck their thumb or use a pacifier. It’s one of the ways they learn about the world around them. Because it’s a reflex, it’s soothing and often helps them fall asleep or feel more secure and safe in new situations. Most little ones will stop on their own between the ages of two and four. Even if they don’t, once they begin preschool, peer pressure can be a powerful motivation to break the habit.

There are varying opinions about the ideal age to stop pacifier use or thumb sucking. At Bitesize, we generally recommend making a concerted effort to get your child to kick the habit if they’re still doing it after the age of four. Taking a preventative approach by stopping the behavior early is your best bet. Just keep in mind, it can be a process and putting too much pressure on them to stop and turning it into a power struggle can keep it going even longer.

Dental Problems from Thumb Sucking and Pacifiers

Kids can develop dental problems from thumb sucking and pacifier use when it goes beyond their first few years. If your baby just rests their finger or thumb in their mouth, the issues tend to be less severe than if they are aggressive when sucking on their thumb or pacifier. In that case, when they take it out of their mouth, you can hear a popping sound. Sucking on either a thumb or a pacifier can have a negative impact on the alignment of a child’s teeth, cause changes in the roof of the mouth and interfere with proper jaw growth. This can lead to malocclusion, or a misaligned bite. Malocclusion may then result in dental issues, jaw pain, headaches and cosmetic concerns. A study on thumb sucking and teeth found that when thumb sucking wasn’t stopped early, it was tied to an excessive overbite and an anterior open bite, which is when the front teeth don’t touch at all when the child bites down. When thumb sucking causes malocclusion, the end result may be lengthy, expensive orthodontic treatment and, in severe cases, the need for corrective jaw surgery.

Tips for Breaking the Pacifier or Thumb Sucking Habit

Breaking the thumb sucking or pacifier habit can take time because it’s comforting to little ones, making it hard for them to stop. Here are some tips to help you get rid of the pacifier and put an end to thumb sucking:

  • Talk with your child about how it’s time to break the habit and why it’s important for them to stop.
  • If you see your child reverting to old habits, use gentle reminders instead of scolding them. When they do refrain, praise them!
  • If your child uses a pacifier, it will be a little easier to get rid of because, obviously, it’s not attached to their body like a thumb or a finger. After talking with your little one and letting them know the binky will be going away, you can try to eliminate it cold turkey.
  • If going cold turkey on the pacifier doesn’t work, try a more gradual route. Start by taking it away when your child is busy and happy or when they’re not at home. Eventually, work down to just having the pacifier when they’re in their crib before taking it away entirely.
  • If you notice your little one sucks on their thumb or uses their pacifier when they’re feeling anxious or upset, get to the root of the problem. Find out what’s making them uneasy or unhappy and work together on adopting different self-soothing techniques.
  • Many kids use their pacifier and suck their thumb in the evening before bed because it helps induce sleep. If this is the case, shake up your child’s bedtime routine and replace sucking with other relaxing things like taking a bath, snuggling or reading a story.
  • Use a system of rewards. Sticker charts can work wonders. Or, if you notice your child gets through a challenging period without sucking their thumb, reward them by doing something fun.
  • If your kiddo tends to go back to the behavior when they’re not thinking of it, you can remind them by putting a sock on their hand or bandaging their thumb at night.
  • Talk to a Bitesize dentist. As pediatric dentists, we know how to get on a child’s level and chat with them about their oral health, including thumb sucking and pacifiers. We can also give you ideas for gently weaning your child off of their thumb or pacifier.
  • If nothing else works and the habit continues for some time, we do offer habit-breaking appliances at Bitesize. The appliance typically has ridges on it that prevent a child’s thumb from coming into contact with the palate, which is the area behind the front teeth where the behavior can cause the most damage. The ridges also make it impossible to create suction, reducing the force when their thumb is in their mouth. Habit-breaking appliances can be effective for treating tongue thrusting too.

If you’re not able to encourage your kiddo to give up their pacifier or stop sucking their thumb on your own, we can help! Schedule an appointment at Bitesize Pediatric Dentistry and we’ll team up with you to keep your child’s smile healthy and bright!

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