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Thumb Sucking and Pacifiers “Non-nutritive Sucking Habits”

Oral habits and their effects on your child’s developing smile

Many children from very early on will develop what is known as non-nutritive oral habits.  Some of you may even have sonogram pictures of your little one with his or her thumb in their mouth.  The most common oral habits are thumb/finger sucking or pacifier use.  Oral habits, however, are not limited to these two most common manifestations and may include sucking on anything from toes to toys or blankets.  The reason many children develop these habits is in order to self-soothe, and this is considered completely normal for children younger than three years old.  The problem occurs when these habits continue as the child gets older. Read a personal perspective from a pediatric dentist: Getting my daughter to stop sucking her thumb >

Three factors of oral habits to consider

Just as each child is different, each child’s habit is also different.  There are three factors that will determine how much your child’s oral habit will affect their developing teeth and occlusion (or bite).  Oral habits vary in frequency, duration, and intensity.  Research has shown that of these three factors, the duration is the most important.  Because of this, patients that engage in oral habits for longer periods of time will be at the highest risk for negative effects on their developing bite.

Oral habits can change your child’s bite

Oral habits cause muscles around the mouth as well as the tongue to move and contract.  These muscle movements apply forces to the neighboring teeth and jaw bones.  This constant force on the teeth can lead to tooth movement away from their natural position.  In addition, these forces can actually cause the underlying jaw bones to become reshaped and affect proper growth and development.  Some of the most common changes we see with prolonged oral habits are anterior open bites (front teeth don’t touch when we bite down), posterior crossbite (back teeth are crisscrossed when we bite down), excess overjet (front teeth flare out), and restriction of growth of the upper jaw.

When should I stop my child’s oral habit?

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends that children stop their non-nutritive oral habits by three years of age.  Early cessation of these habits gives the mouth a greater chance of “re-aligning” itself before the permanent teeth erupt. In many cases, once the child has stopped the habit many of the problems with the patient’s bite will resolve on their own.  Some patients may require orthodontic treatment later in life if bite problems persist.  If the habit continues as the permanent teeth erupt into the mouth, then many of these permanent teeth will display the same problems seen in primary teeth (or baby teeth).

How can I get my child to give up their oral habit?

Although these oral habits are a physical act, there is also a strong psychological component to them.  Because many children use these habits for self-soothing it may be difficult for them to initially give them up.  Keeping this in mind, it is important to give your little one lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement as you begin to wean them from their habit.  Positive reinforcement has shown to be significantly more successful than negative reinforcement when trying to conquer oral habits.  Having the child feel like they are on the same team as you and getting them to the place where they want to stop is the best approach.  Pacifiers are usually an easier habit to break because the parent can regulate when and for how long the child gets to use one.  Many parents have had success with collecting all the pacifiers and “mailing them to the paci fairy.”  Thumb habits can be more difficult to address but some simple tricks include placing a band-aid on the thumb to help remind your child not to suck it, or placing a sock or glove on the hand when the child goes to bed.  When you begin the process of trying to break an oral habit a helpful method is to get a large calendar and place stickers on days where your child was able to go without their habit.  Studies have shown that it takes at least 30 consecutive days of avoiding the habit to help prevent relapse.  In addition to these simple at home tips, there are dental appliances that can be placed in the patient’s mouth to help them overcome these habits.  These appliances work best when a child wants to stop but may need a constant reminder, as many of these habits occur without the patient consciously aware that they are doing it.  Here at Frisco Kids Dentistry, we want to work alongside you and your child when it comes to overcoming these habits.  Our office has a special section of toys that only go to our patients who have stopped their oral habits.  This allows the patients to have a goal to work towards and an incentive to stop.  Besides, who wouldn’t rather have a shiny new toy than a dirty ol’ pacifier anyway?

Learn about our “Star of the Day” award program to help our young patients end their “sucking habits” or more precisely know as a “non-nutritive oral habit”.

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