Thumb Sucking and Dummies – Break Bad Habits

Babies have a biological desire to suck on fingers and objects (ie. dummies, pacifiers, toys). These habits are considered to be self-soothing and they often provide comfort to children. Up until a certain age, there is no detrimental effect to the teeth or jaws from these habits. This article will discuss the age at which thumb sucking and dummies become harmful, and how you can help your child break these habits.

Child chewing and sucking on household items.

What Harmful Effects Can Thumb Sucking Have on Teeth?

If children are thumb sucking and using dummies past a certain age, it’s likely to cause an “anterior open bite”. An anterior open bite is when the child bites together, but their front teeth do not come into contact (shown in the image below). Due to the pressure that the thumb and dummies place behind the top front teeth, you’ll often notice the top teeth flare out. Other abnormalities that thumb sucking and dummies can cause include a narrow upper jaw, cross-bites and other functional/aesthetic dental issues.

thumb sucking causes anterior open bite

At What Age Should Your Child Stop Thumb Sucking?

Up until the age of 2-3 years, sucking on thumbs and dummies isn’t harmful to the teeth and jaws. However, if toddlers continue thumb sucking and dummies beyond the age of 3-4 years, there is a greater chance of dental abnormalities. Also, the research shows that as these habits continue in the older age groups, the treatment options become more limited.

Therefore, the ideal age to stop these habits is before your child turns 3-4 years old. Fortunately, you can use a number of different techniques to help your child break these habits. But the key is PATIENCE, so please don’t be discouraged if you feel like it is taking your child a bit more time.

Tips on How to Break Bad Habits – Thumb Sucking & Dummies

1. Gentle reminders & positive reinforcement: Feel free to give your child goals with appropriate rewards. For example, if they don’t suck on their thumb then they will receive a sticker, extra play-time or an additional bed-time story.

child thumb sucking

2. Nail polish and tape: Pharmacists have over-the-counter nail polishes, which have an unpleasant taste and remind children to keep fingers out of their mouths. Alternatively, you can use bright-coloured sports tape (also available from pharmacies). This serves both as a visual and physical reminder to discourage thumb sucking.

3. Gift the dummy to the “dummy fairy” (or similar): A clever trick is to tell your child that it’s time to give the dummy to the “dummy fairy”, Easter bunny or Santa, in exchange for another gift.

tooth fairy

4. Have “The Talk” on your child’s birthday: The perfect time to convince your child that they are a BIG kid now, is on their birthday! And big kids don’t use dummies.

5. Puncture or cut the end of the dummy: Puncturing the end of the dummy makes the texture less satisfying to suck. Similarly, gradually trimming the end of the dummy, makes it shorter over time and less satisfying. Suddenly you will find your child is no longer interested in this unsatisfying dummy!

child sucking on dummy

6. Other options: If the tips provided in this article aren’t working for your child, then it’s worth discussing other options with your dental specialist.  Depending on your child’s stage of development, the pattern of dental alignment, oral hygiene and other factors – it may be ideal to get fitted with a temporary plate (aka anti-habit appliance) on the roof of their mouth, to help them stop the habit.

7. Assess for underlying anxiety: When habits such as dummies and thumb sucking are continued into older age groups, it is possible that it is related to an underlying psychological issue or anxiety. If this is the case, please see your doctor, because a counselling referral might be beneficial.

Conclusion

Until the age of 2-3 years old, thumb sucking and dummies are quite harmless for children, dentally speaking. There are many different tricks and tips to try in helping your child quit their habits. However the key for all of these techniques is patience, ongoing psychological support and encouragement. This is what will help your child to successfully quit their habit permanently! Please feel free to contact your dentist and ask for help along the way, because the timing for quitting these habits is crucial for your child’s overall dental development.

child sleeping

References

Bowden B. The Effects of Digital and Dummy Sucking on Arch Widths, Overbite, and Overjet: A Longitudinal Study. Australian Dental Journal. 1966 Dec;11(6):396-404.

Warren J, Bishara S, Steinbock K, Yonezu T, Nowak A. Effects of Oral Habits’ Duration on Dental Characteristics in the Primary Dentition. The Journal of the American Dental Association. 2001 Dec 1;132(12):1685-93.

Nandika Manchanda

Hello, my name is Nandika and I am a specialist Paediatric Dentist in Western Australia. My passion is giving children a happy and healthy smile! I am an active member of the society, and love to make time outside of clinical hours to present paediatric oral health education through seminars all over Australia. I work primarily in specialist private practice, but I also provide after-hours emergency care through the Perth Children’s Hospital. Outside of paediatric dentistry I enjoy makeup, baking, family time and all things Beyoncé. I will also find any excuse to get out of dental scrubs and relax in my activewear.

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Thumb Sucking and Dummies – Break Bad Habits
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