By D Casey Hart DDS
April 30, 2021
Category: Oral Health
Tags: thumb sucking  
ThumbSuckingandTongueThrustingCouldCauseaPoorBite

There are many things to be concerned about with your infant. Thumb sucking shouldn't be one of them—at least not yet. Practically universal among young children, the habit normally fades by age four with no real harm.

If it persists beyond that age, however, it can lead to a poor bite (malocclusion). Late thumb sucking may also have a connection with another problem—the inability of a child to transition from an infantile swallowing pattern to an adult pattern.

A baby while swallowing thrusts their tongue forward to help create a seal around a breast or bottle nipple during nursing. This normally changes about age 4, though, to a positioning of the tongue against the roof of the mouth when swallowing. But if they don't transition and continue to thrust the tongue forward, it can place undue pressure on the front teeth and cause them to develop too far forward.

The result may be an open bite, in which a gap exists between the upper and lower teeth even when the jaws are shut. An open bite can also happen with late thumb sucking, but instead of the tongue, their thumb presses against the teeth.

As to thumb-sucking, parents should encourage their child to stop the habit beginning around age 3, if they haven't already begun to do so. The best approach is to use some form of positive reinforcement such as praise or treats. The sooner the habit ceases after age 4, the lower their risk for developing an open bite.

You may also need to be alert to continued tongue thrusting while swallowing, which may still continue even after they no longer suck their thumb. In that case, your child may need orofacial myofunctional therapy (OMT), a series of exercises directed by a trained therapist to retrain the muscles involved with swallowing. This therapy could further help a child properly transition to an adult swallowing pattern.

Open bites can be corrected orthodontically later in life. But by being alert to your child's oral habits, as well as the way they're swallowing, you and your dentist may be able to intervene and eliminate or at least lessen the development of this type of problem bite.

If you would like more information on how to manage thumb sucking, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “How Thumb Sucking Affects the Bite.”

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