Why Is Thumb Sucking Harmful? 5 Possible Side Effects

Why Is Thumb Sucking Harmful? 5 Possible Side Effects
Posted on 03/15/2017

From infancy, children use sucking behaviors to calm themselves. In fact, plenty of parents rely on pacifiers, teething toys, and other items designed for children to suck on in order to encourage emotional regulation in their children.

As children get older, they may develop the habit of finger or thumb sucking. Unfortunately, thumb sucking can have long-lasting negative side effects if the habit persists past age four. Possible side effects of prolonged or intense thumb sucking include the following five.

1. Open Bite

The most serious permanent side effects of thumb sucking are types of dental malocclusion. Malocclusion is a categorical term that describes tooth misalignment that is visible when the mouth is closed. Two of the most common types of malocclusion caused by thumb sucking are open bite and overbite, which we'll discuss in the next section.

Open bite occurs when the top and bottom front teeth become directed outward. This misalignment means that the front teeth do not touch, even with your child's mouth closed completely.

Open bite may require orthodontic correction in the future or may complicate other dental misalignments that necessitate orthodontic treatment.

2. Overbite

Like open bite malocclusion, overbite occurs when the teeth become directed outward. In an overbite configuration, however, this misalignment is confined to the upper front teeth. This misalignment means that the top teeth cover the bottom teeth when your child's mouth is closed rather than the top and bottom teeth touching normally.

Overbite malocclusion can affect the shape of the face and smile. Individuals with extreme overbites may need extensive orthodontic treatment to correct the issue.

In some cases, patients with overbites may need treatment with headgear and other alternative orthodontic appliances since the overlapping teeth can prevent proper placement of traditional metal braces brackets.

3. Skin Problems

Children who suck their thumbs over the course of years may experience uncomfortable or serious skin problems on their preferred thumb. When exposed to the moisture of the mouth, the skin can become vulnerable to other injuries. In some cases, the skin may crack or bleed, making your child's hands vulnerable to infection.

The thumb may begin to look calloused. Additionally, the pressure and moisture of thumb sucking may warp the thumbnail, causing ingrowth or peeling.

If your child experiences major skin problems due to thumb sucking, you may need to discourage the behavior by bandaging the affected thumb, placing a medical finger glove over the finger, or otherwise protecting the thumb. Avoid aversion tactics like dipping the finger in an unpleasant tasting substance since these strategies can cause high levels of frustration and rarely produce lasting results.

4. Speech Impediment

Because thumb sucking affects the development of the teeth, jaw, and palate, the habit can also change how your child eats and speaks. Thumb sucking may cause lisping and other speech impediments, including an inability to pronounce hard consonant sounds like "D" and "T."

Without correct dental care, even high-quality speech therapy may not fully correct these impediments because the deformed sounds are partially caused by the shape of your child's teeth in relation to his or her tongue.

Speech impediments may make it more difficult for your child to communicate effectively. Many children with speech impediments also experience high levels of frustration, anger, and feelings of isolation.

5. Social Issues

Even before your child's thumb sucking becomes a real and present threat to your child's dental development, the habit may cause social issues. Children who suck their thumbs in public may become the target of ridicule at the hands of their peers. While thumb sucking is a normal childhood habit, the older your child gets, the more other people may judge him or her for continuing the habit.

Thumb sucking is a subconscious response to stress or boredom for many children. Because your child may not think before putting his or her thumb to work, your child may need your support and instruction to overcome the habit within the appropriate developmental stage.

As you work to help your child stop thumb sucking, it's important to remember that this habit does not indicate any physiological or developmental issues. Your child may need your help and the help of a dentist or pediatrician to break the habit. However, eliminating thumb sucking behavior is a goal that you can work toward over time and one that should be achieved through positive reinforcement rather than punishment.

In children with no permanent teeth, thumb sucking is usually harmless. As your child's baby teeth begin to fall out and his or her adult teeth begin to develop, however, you should encourage your child to switch to other comfort methods.

Learn more about how you can help your child break this habit by visiting our overview page on thumb sucking and your child's teeth and consulting your pediatric dentist.


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