Thumb Sucking and Pacifier Use in Young Children

If you have a young child, you may be wondering when and if you need to help them overcome their thumb sucking or pacifier use. You may be asking yourself if it really is harmful, at what age it should stop, and what are the potential problems the habit might cause if not remedied. This is a particularly common issue in young children, and yet there are considerations for their future dental health that should be given attention.

Thumb sucking is a natural reflex for young children. Such habits may help babies or toddlers feel soothed and secure, and even help them learn about the world around them. A sucking habit, although a completely normal and expected ritual among young children, can lead to problems with their teeth as they age.

How exactly can thumb sucking or pacifier use affect children’s dental health? One main issue that can arise can be a costly expense for parents down the road. After permanent teeth come in, thumb sucking or pacifier use can negatively affect the correct growth and alignment of the teeth. This misalignment can lead to the need for orthodontic care to realign the teeth within the mouth. It can also change the shape of the roof of the mouth. Due to these changes, speech can also be affected, and many thumb suckers will need speech therapy.

Whether a child sucks intensely or not can be a factor in whether these issues arise as a result of their habit. Passive sucking can be less detrimental than those with vigorous sucking habits.

The typical age for children to stop sucking their thumbs or pacifier is between the ages of 2-4 years of age. Often this is a natural occurrence as children begin interacting more with the world around them. In terms of impact, by this age, permanent teeth may be ready to erupt and so it is even more important to help your child break the habit before they come in. If thumb or pacifier sucking continues after permanent teeth erupt, the child can develop “buck teeth” and cosmetic issues as they grow older.

Ways to Help Your Child Break the Sucking Habit

Thumb and pacifier sucking can be a difficult habit to break for some children. Here are a few pointers to help you guide them through what may feel like a drastic change:

1 – Start by talking to your child about why thumb sucking is a bad habit. Although talking to your child will likely not be enough, it is a good place to start to help your child understand the impact of their habit. If you need help, our dental team can help encourage your child at their next dental visit.

2- As you begin to discourage the habit with your child, involve them in choosing the method of stopping. This could include using a Band-Aid on the thumb or finger as a reminder, or a catch phrase to say when you see the child sucking.

3 – Focus on praise for when they succeed vs. scolding when they revert. Excessive pressure to stop can actually do more harm in discouraging the habit.

4 – Help the child find other ways to self soothe. As a child ages, the triggers for sucking may be more aligned with a specific source of anxiety rather than a general means of self-soothing. Helping to identify the source of the anxiety can help.

5 – Reward your child for small victories along the way.

The team at River Valley Smiles wants to partner with you and your family at every life stage to ensure you and your family have the best oral health possible. As your family dentist, we are eager to help encourage your children in their own healthy habits.