Sucking is a natural instinct with which we are born. Babies and small children use fingers, pacifiers, and other objects to soothe and comfort themselves. Sucking is a normal, healthy part of our early development, but prolonged sucking – past the age of 4 – can cause a host of dental problems and may even indicate medical issues.
Part of a baby’s physical development involves growth and formation of the palate (roof of the mouth) and dental arches where the teeth will be positioned. Persistent aggressive sucking can interfere with the proper growth and development of the mouth and can cause an open bite where the front teeth do not come together and may protrude. Speech problems, improper tongue positioning, and complicated orthodontics can occur as a result of an open bite.
Though children under the age of 2 should be freely allowed to comfort themselves by sucking on fingers or pacifiers, between the ages of 2 and 4, children should replace this type of self-comforting with other means. After the age of 4, sucking can become a habit children continue to use to soothe themselves when they are afraid, hungry, restless, sleepy, or bored. If the child has an obstructed or constricted airway, thumbsucking can aid in breathing during sleep. Thumbsucking can help to move the tongue out of the back of the throat, allowing easier inhalation. An older child who still regularly sucks his thumb at night should have his tonsils, adenoids, and nasal sinuses evaluated to see if they may be contributing to any sleep breathing issues.
If a child is using a pacifier, it is usually easier to break the child’s habit, as the pacifier can be taken away. If thumb sucking is the issue, and it is determined that the child does not have an airway issue, there are appliances that can be helpful in stopping this habit. Some appliances are plastic sheaths that wrap around the thumb or finger and are held in place by straps on the wrist. Palatal arch appliances or “cribs” placed by an orthodontist interfere with the pleasure a child gets from finger sucking. Bitter nail coatings can be placed to make the finger taste objectionable to the child. Sometimes simply offering a reward to the child for discontinuing the habit can be successful.
If you are concerned about your child’s sucking habits, have him or her evaluated by a dentist by the age of three to determine if these habits are affecting the oral development.