It can begin even before birth, it can give comfort and security and it can ultimately cost a lot of money to solve the problems that it can create. What is it? It is your child’s thumb- or finger-sucking habit, or use of a pacifier.
But isn’t the sucking impulse essential? Absolutely! Sucking is the only way an infant takes in nourishment. It is a newborn’s reflexive response that seeks food, comfort, soothing and the transition from wakefulness to sleep. The big question is: How and when is it time to stop?
With ongoing sucking habits, changes in the development of the mouth and teeth can start between the ages of two and three years. The duration, intensity and frequency of the habit can increase the potential for later problems.
The longer the sucking habit persists, the stronger the sucking habit is and the more often your child uses their finger or pacifier, the higher the probability that your child will have structural orthodontic problems—a cross bite in the back teeth (where the top teeth fall inside the bottom teeth when you bite down), or an open bite (that pushes up the roof of the mouth and pushes the teeth out and forward). “Buck teeth” that stick out, or a “tongue thrust” that can lead to a lisp are also possibilities.
Dr. Chad Morarend, an orthodontist with Dubuque Orthodontic Associates, said that “prolonged sucking behaviors result in the malalignment of the teeth and underlying bones. We encourage early diagnosis and timely orthodontic intervention.” He recommends early diagnosis to treat “simple orthodontic problems before they become complex and more expensive.” Discussing dental development is a great reason to make that first visit to the dentist by your child’s first birthday.
So what can a parent do to both use this comfort tool but also know when it’s time to make some changes?
As with most things—especially in dentistry—prevention is key. Many children stop the sucking habit on their own, especially if it does not become a battle of wills between parents and child. A conversation with your dentist or physician can assist you in assessing the appropriate timing related to the emotional and physical development of your child.
Be sure to check back next week for a list of practical tips to help break these sucky habits!
This article orginally appeared in Parenting Today & Tomorrow magazine.