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Are Thumb-Sucking and Pacifier Habits Harmful for a Child’s Teeth?

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Using pacifiers and thumb sucking is a staple of childhood and common behavior for children who need to soothe themselves or are looking for comfort and security. These behaviors are a completely normal part of a kid’s dental journey, and most children tend to grow out of them after a certain age, but thumb-sucking or pacifier use for too long can eventually create problems for children’s dental health.

Reasons Why Children Suck Their Thumbs or Use Pacifiers

Babies and children instinctively like to suck as it resembles nursing, a time in which they feel safe and content. Using a pacifier or sucking their thumbs can emulate this feeling. The ADA estimates that most children suck their thumbs. Pacifier use and thumb sucking can calm an upset child, reassure them in new environments, and help children fall asleep. As children mature, they often develop new ways to self-soothe, and sucking their thumb or pacifier is no longer necessary—usually between ages 2 and 4. However, if they continue these habits after the emergence of their baby teeth, negative pacifier effects on teeth and bad teeth from thumbsucking can be the eventual results.

Related: Check out this helpful baby’s teeth chart for which of your child’s baby teeth should emerge first and when.

How Do Thumb Sucking and Pacifiers Affect Teeth?

What pacifiers do to teeth is different for every child, but there are a few common concerns related to bad teeth from thumb sucking or pacifiers. These include:

1. Jaw Misalignment

As the jaw grows to accommodate the emerging teeth, thumb sucking and pacifier use can affect how the teeth erupt, resulting in a misaligned bite.

2. Roof Narrowing

Negative pressure in the mouth from sucking can result in a narrowing of the palette and roof of the mouth, which can lead to other problems later on.

3. Slanting Teeth

Because of the presence of the thumb or pacifier, the child’s baby teeth often result in an overjet (where the upper and lower incisors are pushed in opposite directions), a crossbite (where the upper molars bite on the inside of the lower ones), or an open bite (where the teeth cannot fully contact one another when the jaw close).

4. Speech Problems

Misaligned teeth, narrowing of the mouth, and jaw malformation can all result in speech problems as the structures needed to correctly form sounds are impeded by the pacifier’s effect on teeth or thumb sucking.

5. Cavities

This is mostly an issue when pacifiers are dipped in sweet substances like honey or juice. Baby teeth are far more vulnerable to cavities due to their thinner enamel layer, and your child’s dentist will likely advise you against giving sweet or sugary foods or drinks to your child during their first dental visit.

How to Stop a Child’s Thumb Sucking or Pacifier Habit

At this point, a concerned parent might ask: are pacifiers bad for teeth? To which the answer is not necessarily, but it’s better to wean your child off of their sucking habit before they are old enough for it to cause major problems later on. However, many children are comforted by their thumb-sucking or pacifier, and it’s important to be tactful about how to help them move on to new methods of comforting themselves. Some of these include:

  • Take away the pacifier when your child doesn’t need to suck and try offering a new toy or form of stimulation like a mobile, rattle, or teething ring.
  • Toddlers and older children can often understand and help with breaking their own sucking habit. Start by explaining to your child that it’s time to start using the pacifier or sucking their thumb less, not because they are in trouble, but because it’s a natural and good part of getting older. Toddlers often crave new experiences, so treating it like a game or task to accomplish will stimulate their minds and incentive them to quit.
  • Thumb suckers might benefit from a small obstacle on their thumb like a bandage during the day to interrupt the habit, or placing one of their socks over their hands while they sleep to stop unconscious sucking.
  • Be careful not to scold your child for sucking or using a pacifier. These habits bring comfort to your child, and it can be difficult to let go of that reassurance. Instead, offer plenty of praise and the occasional reward when they go without.
  • Because thumb sucking and pacifier use can often come from feelings of anxiety, help your child by resolving the things that are making them anxious as well as you can.

Related: check out our guide on how to help a teething baby when they’re feeling fussy or are in pain.

Things to Consider

Transitioning from thumb sucking and pacifier usage can be a big step in your children’s dental care journey, and a crucial part of ensuring they have healthy, properly aligned teeth as they mature. If you have questions about pacifier effects on teeth, bad teeth from thumb sucking, or how to help your baby stop its sucking habit, contact Northern Nevada Children’s Dental and Orthodontics, the premiere children’s dental center in Reno, and let our qualified staff get you the information you need. Call today and schedule your first appointment!

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