Thumb and dummy sucking, sippy cups and your child’s teeth.

Loock Dental Dummy Post

If there is any topic bound to stir up a bit of controversy among parents and caregivers of young children, the question of dummies, thumb sucking and sippy cups is one of them. In this post we will focus on the potential effects of dummy and thumb sucking on the healthy development of your child’s teeth and jaw. Sippy cups and bottles (and what you put in them) were covered in a previous Loock Dental post on your child’s oral health.

Sucking on fingers even toes is a very natural instinct, which most babies enjoy from the time they are in the womb. After birth, this continues and can start to include other objects, such as a blanket, favourite toy or, if one is available, a dummy.

Why do some children suck their thumbs, fingers or a dummy?

Thumb and dummy sucking are known as ‘non-nutritive’ sucking. This means it is sucking not because they are hungry and hoping to be offered the breast or bottle, but usually for comfort and a sense of security. In general medical terms, non-nutritive sucking habits are regarded as both normal and harmless up to the age of four, but this is not the case in terms of dental health and speech development, where it is recommended that thumb or dummy sucking stop before 24 months (2 years) in order not to cause problems.

Bear in mind that temporary excessive finger sucking and drooling in a very young child may be a sign that your child has started teething.

Potential teeth problems caused by dummy and thumb sucking

There is a fairly strong link between dummy and thumb sucking beyond the age of 3 and malocclusion. ‘Malocclusion’ is a catch-all phrase for poorly lined-up teeth and jaws, including:

  • Crowded teeth
  • Crossbite
  • Overbite (the top teeth stick out over the bottom teeth when the jaws are closed)
  • Underbite (the lower teeth stick out past the top teeth)
  • Open bite (the lower and upper teeth point outwards, so they do not touch when the jaw is closed)

In the case of thumb and dummy sucking, the most common types of malocclusion that can result are an overbite, a crossbite, or an open bite. All of these problems with tooth and jaw alignment can potentially affect important functions of the teeth in chewing and speech.

In a large, long-term study of the connection between thumb and dummy (or pacifier) sucking habits and malocclusion, slightly more than half of the children studied had bite problems in their developing teeth.

What can parents do to prevent teeth and jaw development damage from thumb or dummy sucking habits?

Research has shown that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life has extensive health benefits, and one of these is a reduction in the likelihood of a child taking up thumb or dummy sucking, as well as a reduction in the likelihood of malocclusion.

If your child does start a dummy or thumb sucking habit, it is advised that you remember that this is likely a comfort to the child, and that punishing or shaming the child in any way is likely to make the habit worse, not better. The important thing is not necessarily to prevent it starting at all (you are unlikely to be able to do this) but to encourage the child to stop as soon as possible, and certainly before age 2, if you wish to prevent dental problems.

If you introduce a dummy (some parents find this is all that soothe a colicky baby or a baby on a flight, for example) try using it only at specific times in your child’s routine, such as when the child is about to take a nap or go to sleep at night, to reduce the amount of time it is used. Try to use only reputable brand dummies which have been labelled ‘orthodontic’ or designed by a dentist, as these have been shaped in a specific way to limit any potential damage to the child’s developing teeth and jaw.

How to get a child to give up a dummy or thumb sucking habit

If your child sucks their thumb continuously or seems a bit dependent on their dummy, see if you can replace the habit with another method of self-soothing, such as a soft piece of blanket or a special soft toy. Talk to them gently about how this might be a healthier way for them to comfort themselves if they feel tired and worried. There are great picture books on this topic for very young children which can help you explain with pictures and stories.

Very often, children simply give up a dummy after a few encouraging conversations, if you explain it may not be very good for their teeth, or that you would like to see their lovely smile more often. Some people even have a little goodbye ceremony or dummy ‘funeral’ , after which he child is given some special reward such as a trip to the park for a lovely picnic. Chat to your GP or a play therapist if you need further advice on how to make your child feel more secure and calm without potentially damaging their teeth with a long-term thumb or dummy sucking habit.

Dr Theart, has some practical tips for children under age 2 who are still struggling to give up a thumb sucking habit. He advises wrapping their index finger and thumb in elastoplast style bandages (sticking plasters). Most children do not tolerate the texture of bandages in their mouths when sucking, and this discourages the habit. In a persistent case, he recommends pulling a sock over the child’s fist and taping it at the wrist so they cannot put their thumb in their mouth for long enough to break the habit.

The important thing is to be very warm and supportive in this endeavour because the sucking habit is a comfort to the child and any increase in stress is likely to make the habit worse.

Can the damage done by dummy and thumb sucking be fixed?

The good news is that your dentist will be able to correct any dental problems caused by a long-term thumb or dummy sucking habit. It is important that your child have regular check-ups with the dentist from an early age, and you can read our post on encouraging good oral health habits for children. In this post, we discuss the age your child should start appointments with the dentist, how to prepare for them, and offer resources for encouraging good habits.

The sooner a problem like malocclusion is found and corrected, the better, as the treatment is then likely to be less expensive, less intrusive, and to take less time. Malocclusions can even be corrected in adults, but it is a more expensive and time-consuming process. It is important to note, however, that speech problems caused by malocclusion would not simply disappear after your dentist has corrected the bite, and you would need to consult a speech therapist for correction of this, which can be a very long process.

Book an appointment for your child with Loock Dental if you are concerned about their tooth or jaw development and they have a dummy or thumb sucking habit.

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