Will thumb-sucking or using a pacifier hurt my child’s teeth?

blog – Will thumb-sucking or using a pacifier hurt my child s teeth

If you rarely see your child without their thumb or a pacifier in their mouth, this is the blog for you.

It’s adorable to see a baby blissfully sucking on a pacifier or a toddler sucking their thumb as they sleep. But like many parents, you may be concerned about your child’s thumb-sucking or pacifier use. Is thumb sucking harmful? At what age should pacifier use stop? And what will happen if it doesn’t? Southmoor Pediatric Dentistry is here to guide you and your little one through this stage that so many parents experience.

A soothing way to feel secure

Sucking is a natural reflex that begins before your child is even born–many babies suck their thumb or other fingers while they are in the womb. The act of sucking makes infants and young children feel secure and happy, especially if they are in an unfamiliar or stressful environment.

For many children, sucking is a major source of comfort, just like a blanket or a stuffed animal might be. Sucking is also a relaxing activity that can help induce sleep–that’s why you’re more likely to see your child sucking on their pacifier or thumb when they are tired.

The power of the pacifier

Pacifiers often get a bad reputation because of potential dental issues, but they do have some major benefits–especially for exhausted parents.

  • A way for babies to self-soothe: Emphasis is on the word “self” here! A pacifier can help relax your baby and give you a much-needed break to eat a quick meal or just take a moment to sit and breathe.
  • Makes weaning easier: If you’re ready to wean your baby off breastfeeding, using a pacifier can help make the process easier for your little one. On the flip side, be sure to wait to introduce a pacifier to a newborn baby until your nursing routine is fully established (this usually takes 3-4 weeks).
  • Lowers the risk of SIDS: Pacifier use is linked to a significant reduction in the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to put their infants to bed with a pacifier, although it should never be attached to the baby’s clothing.

The challenge with thumb-sucking

It’s totally normal and safe for your child to suck their thumb, depending on their age and the intensity of their habit. Thumb-sucking gives them the same feelings of relaxation and security. However, thumb-sucking presents a unique challenge that pacifiers don’t–you can’t take away your child’s thumb! That’s another reason why it’s so important to know about the potential dental issues these habits can cause.

When and why to stop the sucking

Most children stop using a pacifier or sucking their thumb between the ages of two and four with no harm to their teeth or jaws. These habits need to stop before the eruption of their permanent teeth to help avoid a variety of dental issues.

The intensity of the sucking is another factor that can make a difference. If your child rests their thumb passively in their mouth, they’re less likely to have problems than a child who sucks their thumb more vigorously.

Unfortunately, prolonged pacifier use and/or thumb-sucking can force your child’s teeth to move and even change the shape of the roof of their mouth, potentially causing:

  • Improper mouth growth
  • A misaligned bite, such as overbite or crossbite
  • Speech problems
  • Cavities or gum loss, especially if the pacifier is dipped into something sweet to encourage a baby to use it

If you begin to notice changes in your child’s primary teeth or are concerned about your child’s pacifier use or thumb-sucking, contact your pediatric dentist.

How to end these habits for good

When the time is right, there are many things you can do at home to help your child say goodbye to pacifier use and thumb-sucking:

  • Try to eliminate the pacifier when your baby doesn’t really need to suck. Offer another form of stimulation–such as a mobile, rattle, or teething ring–or distract them by playing.
  • Toddlers are old enough to participate in breaking their pacifier habit. Set a day when the “pacifier fairy” will come take all their pacifiers to another baby and leave a new comfort item (perhaps a stuffed animal or blanket) in their place.
  • For thumb-suckers, put a bandage on their thumb during the day and a sock over their hand at night to discourage sucking.
  • Instead of scolding your child for sucking their thumb, offer them praise and rewards when they don’t. Positive encouragement goes a long way.
  • Children often suck on a pacifier or their thumb when they’re feeling insecure. Focus on correcting the cause of their anxiety and finding other ways to comfort them.

If none of this works, your child’s dentist or pediatrician can prescribe a mouth appliance or a medication that is applied to the thumb to prevent sucking.

Schedule your appointment today

At Southmoor Pediatric Dentistry, we understand kids–and that includes their instinctual need to soothe themselves by sucking. We see lots of former and current pacifier users and thumb-suckers every day. You can count on our team to treat you and your child with compassion and kindness as you both get through this stage of life. Contact us for an appointment today!