How does Thumb-Sucking Impact your Child’s Oral Health?


Parents worry about their children’s thumb-sucking habits. Concerned parents want to know how thumb-sucking affects oral health and how to stop it. Thumb-sucking is a natural habit that babies use as a means of self-soothing. Fortunately, according to the American Dental Association, most children stop between ages two and four. Our Scotts Valley pediatric dentists at Ebrahimian Integrative Dentistry explain how thumb-sucking affects oral health and what you can do to prevent problems if your child sucks their thumb well past the usual age.

How Does Thumb Sucking Cause Tooth Damage?

Prolonged thumb sucking applies constant pressure on the front teeth and upper dental palate, which eventually changes the tooth alignment and jawbone structure. The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that parents change their child’s behavior by age four to avoid affecting their child’s growth and development, which could cause crooked permanent teeth. Additionally, thumb sucking could lead to a narrow airway that causes sleep apnea, a recessed chin, and protruding upper teeth.

Our dentists who treat children in Santa Cruz explain that failure to treat your child’s thumb-sucking habit may cause the following consequences

  • Speech development delay or speech impediment: Severe malocclusions and poor tongue control due to thumb sucking may cause a lisp or difficulty with the S, Z, L, and R sounds.
  • Palatal constriction (the upper palate doesn’t expand to full size): The repeated pressure from the excessive sucking action leads the teeth to move in an unusual orientation, impacting your child’s facial anatomy.
  • Malocclusion and bite problems: Malocclusion is a misalignment of the teeth characterized by an open bite, overbite, crossbite, or underbite.
  • Skin abrasions: Skin on the thumb could be subject to a greater risk of abrasions or infections.
  • Social concerns: Your child’s extended thumb-sucking behavior might lead to taunting among classmates or other playmates.

An adverse thumb-sucking result is that the upper jaw must move forward, causing the front teeth to protrude or become gapped. In addition, according to research, the longer a child sucks their thumb, the higher the likelihood they may develop a crossbite.

Our Los Gatos dentists for children share the statistics below about crossbite potential based on a child’s thumb-sucking habit

  • Stopped Thumb Sucking at 1 Year: 5.8 percent have crossbites.
  • Stopped Thumb Sucking at 2 to 3 Years: 13 percent have crossbites.
  • Thumb Sucking Past 4 Years: 20% percent have crossbites.

How can I help break the habit?

Long-term thumb sucking can cause tooth decay and gum disease in children. So the first step is to encourage your child to stop sucking their thumb and gently remind them throughout the day. Provide reinforcements by rewarding your child when they don’t suck their thumb as often. For instance, set an attainable goal, like having your child go several hours without sucking their thumb. When they achieve this, offer rewards like extra snuggle time or playtime with your child.

On the other hand, stopping nighttime thumb-sucking may be more challenging. Therefore, our Scotts Valley dentists that treat children offer some valuable suggestions below for working with your child to help them stop sucking their thumb. Because of nervousness or fright, children may suck their thumb, fingers, or pacifier when going to sleep. So, please speak to your child and try to find out what’s causing their feelings and address these worries so that your child may no longer need to suck their thumb or pacifier. For instance, perhaps your child sucks their thumb because they are scared of the dark. If that is the case, offer a nightlight to help ease their fears. Consult with a pediatric dentist to establish the child’s current condition, what treatment methods you should pursue, and understand what may happen to their teeth if the habit persists. Using thumb guards can help reduce the urge to place their thumb in their mouth. So, bandage their thumbs or cover their hands with socks or gloves at night. Replacing a thumb or pacifier-sucking habit with a healthy alternative, such as grasping a blanket or a beloved toy, can help your child stop sucking their thumb and protect their oral health

Los Gatos, Santa Cruz, and Scotts Valley, California

Thumb sucking is a normal infant reflex that often starts before birth and usually resolves on its own by age four. However, if your child struggles with thumb sucking beyond four years old, it’s time to involve their pediatrician and our pediatric dentists in Scotts Valley before severe adverse conditions develop. If your child is thumb-sucking and you need help to make it stop, please call Ebrahimian Integrative Dentistry at (831) 438-4411 or contact us online to request an appointment.