Most of us have a habit before we are even aware of who we are or where we belong. I refer to thumb, finger and dummy sucking. It’s a recurring concern for parents and I am regularly asked by my patients whether it affects children’s teeth. It can have a detrimental effect on the growth of teeth which is why it’s wise to be cautious about letting the habit get out of control.
Babies and toddlers sucking their thumb, finger or dummy as soon as they get tired, bored or are simply in need of comfort is normal up to the age of two. Sucking gives a baby comfort and a sense of security associated with breast or bottle-feeding.
Quit before the habit hardens
So when should parents get worried? Developing teeth or bite problems as a result of a sucking habit has to do with frequency, age and intensity. It’s likely that children naturally outgrow their sucking habit before getting permanent teeth, around the age of 7, but if not, it’s important to help a child quit their habit before it becomes a problem. As for frequency, sucking may affect the position of teeth if it happens for more than 6 hours per day or night.
In these cases, the constant pressure that is put on the teeth during dummy sucking can eventually lead to tooth movement. Common consequences are a vertical gap between the front teeth, the upper front teeth sticking out or a posterior crossbite, where the upper teeth at the back of the mouth bite behind the lower teeth. In order to prevent these problems occurring, there are a few things parents can do to help their child.
Rewards for children
As thumb and dummy sucking often happen when children are asleep, it is likely to be an unconscious action. It could therefore help to use a physical barrier such as a sock, bitter tasting nail polish or a bandage to discourage the child not to do it. But most importantly, as a sucking habit tends to provide a child comfort, parents should never forget to praise their children every day they have gone without their thumb or dummy.
My second daughter was obsessed with the film Frozen at the time she was dummy sucking, which made it easy for me. We were due to go to Disney and I asked if she wanted to see Princess Elsa and Princess Ana. I said she could if she didn’t suck her dummy anymore, and guess what? She stopped overnight. What I’m trying to say here, is that it isn’t easy for a child to give up something they love doing, but sometimes an incentive from their parents can help!
Photo by Sharona Gott