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Pacifier Use, Thumb Sucking and Your Child’s Teeth

thumb sucking and pacifier use - La Mesa Children's DentistSan Diego, CA – Does your child suck his thumb or use a pacifier? While sucking is a natural reflex for infants and young children, extended use can harm the way a child’s permanent teeth come in, leading to the need for orthodontic treatment in the future.

“It’s normal for children to use a pacifier, or suck on their thumb or fingers, as a baby to calm and soothe themselves,” says Dr. Santiago Surillo, a La Mesa children’s dentist. “But if that continues once the permanent teeth begin to erupt, it can harm the alignment of your child’s teeth. But it also has an effect on the growth of the mouth and can cause changes in the roof of your child’s mouth.”

So when should you be concerned, and when should you encourage your child to break the habit?

Sucking is a natural reflex, one that can even be seen on ultrasound images of babies in the womb. Using a pacifier or sucking on a thumb or finger can have a calming effect on a young child, soothing him when he is sad, scared or even tired.

But prolonged sucking can cause issues that might damage your child’s mouth. How can you know if your child’s habit might be damaging?

“Check to see how aggressively your child’s sucking reflex is, and how it might lessen over time,” says Dr. Santiago Surillo. “If your child just passively rests their finger, thumb or pacifier in the mouth, she is less likely to develop serious oral issues from her habit. However, if your child still vigorously sucks at a later age, he can experience problems with not just his developing permanent teeth, but the baby teeth as well.”

Thumb sucking usually stops between the ages of two and four. The younger you can help your child break the habit, the better. Pacifier use is often an easier habit to break, because a pacifier can be taken away, but a thumb or finger cannot.

Dr. Surillo offers these tips to help break your child’s habit:

  • Offer praise to your child when they don’t suck. Reward and sticker charts can also be a motivating factor for older children.
  • If your child uses sucking as a coping mechanism for anxiety, help your child find other positive ways to handle their emotions, and offer plenty of comfort to your child during the process.
  • If your child is older, have a discussion with the child about what the habit can do to their teeth, and have the child involved in discussions about the best method for stopping the habit.
  • Ask your dentist to help encourage your child. Dr. Santiago’s office is happy to help explain the damage it can cause to the mouth in a way your child can understand, and can offer helpful encouragement along the way.
  • If your child’s sucking habit continues for too long, you’ll most likely require the services of an orthodontist to repair the damage.

“One of the benefits my patients have is that not only does my office provide pediatric dentistry solutions, we also offer orthodontics,” says Dr. Surillo. “While most children won’t see an orthodontist until after the age of seven, children in our office who begin their dental relationship with us as a one or two year old have the added benefit of being checked by someone well versed in dento-facial growth and development.”

Dr. Surillo and his partners can monitor and evaluate the growth and development of your child’s jaw, face and supporting structures, and be able to tell you when a habit may be causing damage. And then, treatment can be prescribed at precisely the right time to offer the best outcome for your child.

“By the age of 12, 90 percent of your child’s face has finished developing,” says Dr. Surillo. “While this is a common age to begin orthodontic treatment, we see great success and amazing results on patients between the ages of eight and 11, when we can help to guide facial development. When we can correct the underlying issues, such as the size, shape and position of the bones, we can provide a better environment in which the permanent teeth can erupt, making any future orthodontic treatment easier.”

It’s important to begin a relationship between your child and a dentist at a young age. Your dentist can monitor the growth and development of your child’s teeth and mouth, and alert you to any issues a sucking habit may be causing.

If you are worried about the effects a sucking habit may have already had on your child’s mouth, schedule a consultation with Dr. Surillo today.