Children suck their thumbs for security, but the habit may end up causing insecurity later on if it leaves a child with crooked teeth. Thumbsucking definitely can push teeth out of position, but whether or not it does depends on the age of the child and how intensely the sucking action is.
The sucking action is natural for infants, but the natural action usually decreases before a baby is one year old. Thumbsucking beyond this age is a habit, but this usually decreases by about the age of 6. Most dentists agree that thumbsucking is harmless in the early years before the permanent teeth have erupted. If the habit continues after that, it can cause problems with the teeth and the roof of the mouth, which can lead to crooked teeth or buck teeth.
The problem with thumbsucking and teeth positioning occurs when the intensity of the sucking puts pressure on the roof of the mouth. This can cause the front teeth to be pushed forward, sometimes both front teeth and sometimes just one. Damage to the roof of the mouth can also occur, and the child may develop a callous on their thumb.
Some parents give their newborn infant a pacifier in the hopes that this will decrease the likelihood of the child picking up the thumbsucking habit. Pacifier use can actually cause the same dental problems as thumbsucking, but it may be an easier habit for the child to break. For one thing, parents can take pacifiers away from children when they reach a certain age, but they can’t take the child’s thumb away. Most children will distance themselves from pacifiers on their own when they get older or when they start school. Thumbsucking may be the more dangerous habit, because the thumb is always with the child and always a temptation.
Helping an older child break the thumbsucking habit can be accomplished with encouragement and patience. Rewards for not thumbsucking, rather than punishment for thumbsucking, are recommended to encourage the child’s self-esteem. Some older children who suck their thumbs are troubled by anxiety or other self-esteem issues, so punishment or criticism may make the problem worse.
Physical barriers to thumbsucking like mittens, finger splints or bitter tasting liquid on the thumbnail may work with some children, but others may feel frustrated by these methods, and then the emotional desire to suck the thumb can increase. When a child has a difficult time breaking the habit of sucking their thumb, intervention from a mental health professional could help. A visit to a dentist can also determine how the child’s thumbsucking is affecting their teeth.