Many infants and young children have habits where they suck on fingers, pacifiers or other objects. This type of sucking is completely normal for babies and young children. It provides security. For young babies, it is a way to make contact with and learn about the world. In fact, babies begin to suck on their fingers or thumbs even before they are born.
Most children stop sucking on thumbs, pacifiers or other objects on their own between 2 and 4 years of age. However, some children continue these habits over long periods of time. In these children, the upper front teeth may tip toward the lip or not come in properly. Frequent or intense habits over a prolonged period of time can affect the way the child’s teeth bite together, as well as the growth of the jaws and bones that support the teeth.
Dr. Porter and Dr. Buddy generally recommend the use of a pacifier for children under that age of two that are showing signs of having a sucking habit. Thumb, finger and pacifier sucking affect the teeth and jaws in essentially the same way. However, a pacifier habit is often easier to break. We recommend ceasing a pacifier habit at age 2 by weaning the child off of the paci. In our experience prolonged pacifier use past the age of two is more likely to cause a dental malocclusion called a posterior crossbite than sucking on fingers or thumbs.
Dr. Porter and Dr. Buddy will examine your child’s occlusion at every 6 month check up to make sure that habits are not causing any long term problems with tooth eruption or jaw development. Some eruption and development problems can require intervention with early orthodontic treatment. If we notice any such problems developing we will be sure to make a timely referral to an orthodontist.
Most children stop sucking habits on their own, but some children need the help of their parents and their pediatric dentist. With pacifier habits it is best to just quit “cold turkey”. It may lead to a few restless nights but usually after a few days the habit is extinguished. When your child is old enough to understand the possible results of a finger or thumb habit, Dr. Porter or Dr. Buddy can encourage your child to stop, as well as talk about what happens to the teeth and jaws if your child does not stop. This advice, coupled with support from parents, helps most children quit thumb or finger habits. It is important to make sure that you use positive reinforcement and praise your child when they are not sucking their finger or thumb. A reward chart can sometimes be a very effective tool. Children can get a sticker on a calendar for each day or night they go without sucking their thumb or finger. After a certain number of days or nights without sucking their thumb or finger the child can get a prize or reward.