Thumb sucking: how can it impact oral health?

Thumb sucking: how can it impact oral health?

Many dentists have treated children and teenagers who have long-term dental problems caused by thumb sucking. But what exactly causes thumb sucking? What problems does it create? And perhaps most importantly, what are the best solutions?

Thumb sucking

Thumb sucking is natural. It starts in the womb and often continues until a child is around four years old. However, as with any behaviour, it can have a greater impact if it continues long-term and becomes harder to stop.

Children who suck their thumbs beyond the age of four or five typically do so as a coping mechanism. This can be especially stark at times of change: a new school, house or sibling, for example. Of course, these can be fairly common changes for families, which can contribute to the frequency of thumb sucking.

If change is a constant, as it often is for adults and children alike, then it can make children anxious and in need of comfort. The more anxiety experienced by a child who sucks their thumb, the more they tend to thumb suck. It can truly become a vicious circle.

Other reasons why a child may suck their thumb persistently include hunger and boredom. As the thumb sucking habit starts in the womb, it is not a surprise that it can mimic the act of breastfeeding – a child is seeking comfort by this action.

What about oral health?

The impacts of long-term thumb sucking can be stark. According to the British Orthodontic Society, if the habit continues beyond the age of seven, then the position of the adult teeth can be permanently affected, and self-correction is less likely to occur.

The most commonly seen oral health problems include:

  • Crossbite
  • Anterior open bite
  • Due to irregularity of the teeth, speech problems such as lisping, imprecise pronunciation and thrusting out the tongue when talking can occur
  • Changed shape and narrowing of the palette
  • Problems chewing.

It’s not just dental problems. Other side-effects of long-term thumb sucking include chapped skin or wounds on the thumb and the mouth, persistent infections, low self-esteem and a tendency to indulge in other behaviours such as excessive hair twirling or skin biting.

It’s almost a certainty that many of the dental professionals reading this article will have seen these direct side-effects of a child sucking their thumb. Sadly, for a child and their parents, by the time a dentist becomes aware of these problems, they are likely to be more complex and difficult to treat. So, what can be done?

Prevention and solutions

Prevention is key, and there are many solutions available.

One commonly used solution is replacement. Where a child has associated thumb sucking with comfort, it can be useful to provide them with an alternative, such as a cuddly toy or a comfort blanket. By offering an alternative, parents are showing their child they understand that they are looking for comfort and security, but are providing a somewhat safer option, one which will not have long-term physical side-effects.

Parents often turn to products such as Thumbsie, which are designed to help children quit thumb sucking, and an approved product of the Oral Health Foundation. These products act like ‘snug’ thumb or finger gloves. A child places it over their thumb or fingers and every time they go to suck their thumb it reminds them not to.

Some experts recommend giving a child a dummy, but really this should not be done beyond a very young age. Others suggest putting foul tasting nail polish on a child, but again this is not something we recommend. It is an unnecessarily forceful way to deal with long-term thumb sucking.

Underlying causes

As long-term thumb sucking is typically associated with the desire to self-soothe and relieve anxiety, some of the best solutions involve changing behaviour. One of the most important ways of combating thumb sucking is through communication. It is vital to get to the bottom of why a child is thumb sucking. What is causing them anxiety? What are they worried about?

In addition to communicating with a child, it can be very beneficial to give encouragement, both verbally and through action. If a parent or caregiver appears to be angry or frustrated with a child’s thumb sucking, this is likely to make things worse. By encouraging the child, and showing they are not disappointed or upset, an adult can help that child to stop.

Rewards also help of course! Children respond well to rewards – like Thumbsie’s own rewards chart. If they feel they are competing in a game or a fun challenge (to quit thumb sucking) children are more likely to stick at it.

For more information on thumb sucking, its causes and solutions, you can view a range of sources including the British Orthodontic Society

If you are a dentist who would like to receive a sample of award-winning Thumbsie thumb glove please email Jo on [email protected].

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