Thumbsucking – What parents need to know

Thumbsucking – What parents need to know

It’s well known that sucking is one of the earliest reflexes to develop, and you may even have seen incredible 3D scans of unborn children sucking their thumb in the womb.  This reflex exists to ensure your baby can feed from the moment it is born.

However, thumb/finger sucking and pacifier use has no nutritional benefit and are called non-nutritive sucking habits or NNSH’s.  Pacifier use can provide some benefits to young children; however there is no benefit in encouraging pacifier use beyond the age of two and a half years.

Population studies have shown that 82 percent of newborns have a NNSH up to five months.  This incidence drops to around 50 per cent by four years of age.  At seven years of age, around 12 percent still have a NNSH, dropping to below 2 percent by 12 years of age.  To a large extent this is a self-solving problem, and most children have stopped the habit well before it affects the adult teeth.

The long term effects of a prolonged sucking habit include prominent adult teeth (bucky teeth), narrow palate, bite and speech problems.  Luckily, most of these problems can be corrected with orthodontic treatment.  However, prevention is better than cure.

Ideally sucking habits should be stopped before the adult teeth start to appear – around the age of five or six years.

There are a number of physical and psychological strategies described in books and magazines to encourage children to end the habit. These include taste aversion creams, reminder bandages, and positive and negative reinforcement.

However, it must be remembered that a child will not stop the habit unless he/she WANTS TO!  If the child has not developed sufficient awareness (cognition), then any physical or psychological attempts to prevent the habit will be a negative experience for the child.  The age at which a child develops sufficient awareness varies greatly, but they usually get there in the end.

A visit to your dentist or orthodontist can help your child understand that the problem is serious.  Often, just an encouraging talk with someone with perceived authority is enough for a child to give up the habit.

There are certain appliances that can be made by the dentist or orthodontist that can be placed in the child’s mouth which interfere with the sucking habit, removing the pleasure of the habit.  Often this can allow spontaneous correction of any dental problems caused by the habit.  However, this is normally only done when all other options have failed, and the child’s teeth are being badly affected.

A recent high level systematic review has provided data which shows that both physical (plates, etc.) and psychological intervention by an orthodontist is approximately six times more effective at stopping a sucking habit than no intervention at all.

Dr Bobby Griffin is a board-registered Specialist Orthodontist and the Principle of Sunbird Orthodontics.  With over 17 years as a caring dental professional and accredited by the Australasian Orthodontic Board, Dr Bobby has extensive National and International specialist qualifications and is a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Australasia.