Babies are born with an innate reflex to suck so they can start breastfeeding from birth and as a result will suck any object placed in their mouth. This will then become a learned behaviour during the first few months of establishing breast and/or bottle feeding and disappears at around 4 months when it is no longer a simple reflex.
However, thumb sucking itself, is not reflexive, and it is believed to be a self-soothing habit. We even see this from time to time in ultrasound images of foetuses in utero.
There are usually no ill effects from newborn babies’ thumb sucking, and most children will naturally give up the habit at around 2-4 years of age. However, we encourage parents to try to prevent thumb sucking or if that’s not possible to stop it by the time the first baby teeth erupt. We advise this because we see issues with the development of the baby teeth which can then continue on to the adult teeth. However, if thumb sucking continues past the age of around 7 when adult teeth are erupting there can be growth issues of the teeth with misalignment of the bite of the front teeth, a high palate and narrow arch form of the jaws and poor jaw growth.
Some of these long-term effects include an anterior open bite which is a condition whereby the front teeth do not bite together while the back teeth are closed together. This in turn can affect the ability to bite food correctly so the patient needs to tear food rather than bite right through the food and it can also affect the way that some sounds are pronounced eg lisping the /s/ sound. An incorrect swallowing action, known as a tongue thrust swallow may also develop.
If an anterior open bite is left untreated into adulthood, full orthodontics with jaw surgery is required to correct the resultant jaw and dental growth discrepancies. The orthodontic treatment can take 2-3 years of braces and the jaw-bone surgery is significant.
It is important to seek professional help when trying to stop a habit such as thumb sucking in older children. Children often use the habit of thumb sucking as an emotional crutch in much the same way as people who bite their nails or other repeated habits. Parents and health professionals need to be sensitive to the psychology behind the habit formation. Punishment, negativity, and nagging are not the best strategies for parents to adapt to achieve changes in their children’s behaviours.
At Coburg Dental Group orthodontics Preston and Coburg, we have many children who have happily given up the thumb sucking habit voluntarily at an early age. But we have seen many children over the age of 5 years where thumb sucking has become an issue and a difficult habit to break. It just takes some patience, persistence and encouragement for some children whilst others require professional intervention.
Our dental hygienists at Coburg Dental Group orthodontics Preston and Coburg, who have additional training in orofacial myology, can help our older thumb sucking children with a comprehensive, planned course of visits to make the process a lot easier.
Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks.Before proceeding, you should seek a second opinion from an appropriately qualified health practitioner.