Does Sucking Your Thumb Mess up Your Teeth?

Thumb sucking can be detrimental to your kids' dental alignment

You might remember our parents or grandparents calming a toddler using a pacifier and paying little attention to the kid’s thumb-sucking habit. Also, a few decades ago, the awareness of the importance of orthodontics wasn’t as ponderous as it is today. But why do we talk about these two apparently different things?

We live in an age in which we are experiencing a paradigm shift. Orthodontics and other disciplines evolved substantially, and so do parents’ and patients’ perceptions about prevention to minimize the impact of inadvertent omissions like letting a child “suck on its thumb indefinitely.” Parental awareness of behaviors that could affect children’s normal development increased throughout the last decades.

At first, thumb sucking is normal, and we will explain it in detail, but there is a point where it can cause more harm than it solves. Thumb sucking helps the child get calm, but continuous repetitions and prolonged in time sucking of the thumb might be detrimental to the child’s teeth development in the future. This article addresses a child’s habit of thumb-sucking and its impact on teeth development.

Why Do Kids Suck Their Thumbs?

Thumb sucking is a normal and natural reflex in humans. Some unborn suck their thumbs in the womb in the ninth week after conception. But why does a kid suck their thumbs? For an unborn, thumb sucking serves as an adapting function to breastfeeding.

Moreover, a child uses it to soothe and feel comfort. The contentment sensation might as well serve as a self-protection mechanism a baby develops as it mimics the security they feel at breastfeeding.

We said self-protection also because the calm thumb-sucking provides to the kid helps them feel secure, mostly when they feel stressed, hungry, tired, or even when they are bored. Although thumb sucking normally stops between years two to four, some kids use it as a psychological regression mechanism.

Regression is a psychological term for a self-defense mechanism that triggers when a situation is perceived as threatening by the child and returns to a previous stage or immature moment when they felt safer. As noted, thumb-sucking might start in the mother’s womb.

Can Thumb Sucking Affect My Kids’ Teeth?

Definitely, yes, studies reveal that extended thumb sucking after the eruption of baby teeth might have a negative impact on the kid’s teeth’ normal development. Yet, using a pacifier or extended sucking from a bottle has similar adverse effects on kids.

The correct terminology for these habits is clinically defined as “Non-nutritive Sucking Habits – NNSH.” If the habit persists for an extended period of time after the eruption of permanent teeth, it exacerbates the possibility of developing malocclusion.

Malocclusion is a clinical term for teeth misalignments that have an impact on the functionality of the bite, causing dental and craniofacial anomalies that require treatment that is often solved with orthodontic techniques and appliances.

How to Stop My Kid From Thumb Sucking

Great news for parents, especially in the communications age, is that there are verified and trusted sources where to find information about techniques that could help them address thumb-sucking before it becomes problematic. Here we include some important advice:

Parental and Patient Advice

Kids are like sponges that absorb immense volumes of information. Can you believe they started learning when they were in the womb? Also, parents are their reference figures from who they get most of their personality patterns.

The first thousand-days rule from birth to age three determines that kids develop faster than at any stage of their lives. At the age of five, almost ninety percent of their brain development completes.

Consequently, it is crucial for parents to work with quality stimulation to teach the child to take advantage of what experts call a synchronous rapport that exists between the kid and the mother.

Use of a Dental Appliance

As previously mentioned, thumb-sucking might unconsciously disappear at some point between years two and four. Also, the longest it extends in time, the higher the propensity to develop a malocclusion.

The American Dental Association – ADA recommends parents take their kids for their first orthodontic evaluation at age seven. We must also indicate that a first check-up might reveal the need to use an appliance to reduce or eliminate the effects of thumb-sucking in kids. So, here we list some of the appliances used for this purpose.

  • Thumb crib with spikes.
  • Expander with thumb crib.
  • Palatal thumb crib.
  • Hay rake orthodontic appliance.
  • Bluegrass appliance.
  • Modified bluegrass appliance.
  • Tguard thumb.
  • Habit appliance.

Behavior Modification Techniques

A modification of the kid’s behavior might require the use of a technique according to their age. For instance, psychologists recommend the use of communication and positive reinforcement that could be split into different actions. Here we include some tactics to encourage your kid to break the habit.

Positive Reinforcement

It is all about stimulation with rewards and communication. You can use as many little helpers as you might deem necessary, like defining a reward with happy face stickers for every time your kid doesn’t suck on their thumb.

Calendar With Rewards

Along with the stickers, you might also use them in a child-style calendar, adding every day your child didn’t suck on their thumb up until reaching a goal date, and praise your little one with a surprise.


Talking and explaining why a specific action has a consequence is an excellent approach to the problem. Remember, kids are like sponges, and they are great at assimilating and processing information from their parents.

Other Bad Habits for Children’s Teeth

There are several habits in toddlers and school-age kids that range from biting their nails, scratching their scars, and biting on pencils and others that parents must address before they become a problem. Among the most common and malocclusion-threatening there are tongue thrusts and the constant use of a pacifier. Let’s check them as follows:

Tongue Thrust

Your little kid might develop a habit of pushing their tongue against the mouth’s roof and developing teeth. This habit is often common when teeth exert constant pressure on their front teeth.

However, tongue thrusting can cause several types of misalignments according to the pattern of the movements. Moreover, tongue thrusting might cause a malocclusion typology defined as an open bite where teeth are pushed and displaced so they don’t make contact at the bite, but others do. This leaves an open space between the upper and lower teeth.

A malocclusion of this kind could be detrimental to your kid’s oral health, requiring orthodontic treatment to fix the bite misalignment to avoid unwanted wear of the teeth that do touch each other, exerting an uneven strain on them. Furthermore, Tongue thrust also classifies into three typologies.

  • Anterior Thrust.
  • Unilateral Thrust.
  • Bilateral Thrust.

Baby Pacifiers

Similarly to thumb sucking, a pacifier calms the baby’s anxiety and helps them relax. In fact, reaching a determination of habits as bad or good is a complex task. Studies reveal that using a pacifier reduces the occurrence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – SIDS.

The relationship between pacifier use and the lowering of SIDS occurrences is still unclear. However, scientists attribute them to the effect of reflux while the kid changes positions while sleeping if no pacifier is present.

Yet, it is inevitable to refrain from reaching a posture that states something is good or bad. So, to reach a friendly agreement, we might say that using a pacifier is good in some cases, but at some point, it must be disregarded as well, as we mentioned with thumb-sucking.

Among the odds of using a pacifier, we encounter that it might interfere with breastfeeding. Also, latex used in pacifiers area prone to catch bacteria that are then swallowed by the infant, causing gastrointestinal infections.

Moreover, as well as with thumb sucking, constant and extended use of a pacifier, especially after the third year, increases the chances of developing malocclusion, especially buck teeth that cause permanent front teeth to protrude forward at an odd angle.

Common Orthodontic Problems Related to Thumb Sucking

The classification and typologies of malocclusion depend mostly on the severity, zone, and occlusal abnormality of the teeth. Yet, for the most part, three types of malocclusion can develop from prolonged thumb sucking as follows:

Protruding Upper Teeth

The finger positioning with the fingerprint part pushing against the roof of the mouth also levers the upper front teeth protruding forward, causing an overbite retracting the front lower teeth too far from the upper teeth.

Open Bite

An open bite malocclusion occurs as a consequence of thumb sucking by developing space at the bite that prevents the upper teeth from making contact with the lower teeth. For instance, at the bite, the upper front teeth don’t make contact with the lower teeth, but the molars in the back make contact with uneven pressure.


The teeth make uneven contact as they might place laterally closer to the cheek or the palate.

Your Family Prefered Specialist at El Cerrito Orthodontics

You can rest assured you have an experienced and committed professional that seeks to deliver a positive impact on families helping patients of all ages with customized treatments that include state-of-the-art orthodontic options: El Cerrito Invisalign and Braces El Cerrito.

Schedule an appointment for you and your family and start enjoying premium and caring customized orthodontic treatment. Start the journey to an enjoyable healthy, and beautiful smile.

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