Thumb Sucking

 Child sucking thumb.

A thumb- or finger-sucking habit is age appropriate for infants and toddlers, but as your child grows, there comes a point where this habit may be harmful to your child's oral health.

In most children, thumb sucking stops on its own between the ages of two and four years. If the practice persists after the primary (baby) teeth have erupted, it can drastically change the growth patterns of the jaw, and cause significant misalignment of the teeth including:

  • Flaring of the upper front teeth 
  • Backward movement of the lower front teeth
  • Crossbite of the back teeth on one side or both sides
  • Crowding of the front teeth 
  • Open bite of the front teeth (front teeth cannot close together)
  • Decreased and asymmetric growth of the lower jaw 

It may be hard to believe that such a benign habit can actually move teeth and bone — but there are a number reasons why this occurs. Children's jaws, rich in blood supply and growing rapidly, are relatively soft and flexible — especially in kids under the age of eight. So it really isn't hard for the constant pressure of a thumb or finger to deform the soft bone around the upper and lower front teeth. Children who are particularly vigorous thumb suckers are even more likely to change the growth patterns of the teeth and jaws. That's why it is important to stop the behavior at an appropriate time, before damage occurs.

Controlling Thumb or Finger Sucking

Like many potentially harmful behavior patterns, thumb sucking can be a difficult habit to break. Through the years, parents have tried a variety of home remedies, such as having the child wear gloves, coating the fingers with a bitter-tasting substance — and even reasoning with their children. Sometimes it works — but in other cases, the allure of thumb sucking proves very difficult to control.

Fixed palatal crib.

If your child has a thumb or finger sucking habit that has persisted past the age of three, and you've been unable to tame it, then it may be time for the help of an orthodontist. We will consider treating your child with a “habit appliance” such as a fixed palatal crib or a removable device. 

The semicircular wires of a palatal crib keep the thumb or finger from touching the gums behind the front teeth. Simply preventing this contact seems to take all the enjoyment away from the thumb sucking habit — and without that pleasurable feedback, a child has no reason to continue the behavior. In fact, the device is often successful the first day it's worn.

Getting and Using a Habit Appliance

If your child could benefit from a habit appliance, please call for a First Visit. If it's recommended, a crib will then be custom-fabricated to fit your child's mouth, and placed at a subsequent appointment. Afterwards, your child will be periodically monitored until the appliance is removed — typically, a period of months.

Although wearing the crib isn't painful, your child may experience some soreness in the upper back teeth for a few hours after it's first installed. He or she may also have a little trouble falling asleep for a day or two afterward. Plenty of extra attention and TLC are usually all that's needed to make everything all right. While the appliance is being worn, it's best to avoid chewing gum and eating hard, sticky food that might cause it to come loose.