All of us are born with the innate sucking reflex. It is needed to survive as an infant and helps us eat as babies. As we develop, some babies will use a thumb, finger, or a pacifier as a comforting mechanism. However, at some point, this habit can start to cause harm to the developing teeth and bones of the mouth.
At what age do kids need to stop sucking thumbs or using pacifiers?
- Depending on how much sucking pressure your child uses on his thumb or pacifier, you may start to see changes as soon as age 2-4 years old. You may notice flaring of the front teeth and changes to the shape of the smile. Typically, these changes can self-correct if the child is done with the habit by age 6 before the adult teeth start to erupt.
Why do we need to break the habit?
- The habit can permanently change shape of bones of the mouth and permanently change the shape of the smile. Some long-term habits can cause irreversible changes that cannot be fixed with orthodontic treatment alone. Additionally, it will create issues that can make orthodontic treatment more time-consuming, more complex, and more expensive.
How can we start to break a pacifier habit?
Typically a thumb habit is more challenging to break than a pacifier habit because you cannot take a thumb away : ) In most cases, you will start this process at a younger age while the child is still a toddler, and in many cases they will stop on their own. Avoid harsh words or punishment as this is not effective for this age group. Praise progress and use rewards charts to help encourage them to quit. Beware - in some cases, a new thumb or finger habit may emerge!
How can we start to break a thumb habit?
- Be conservative at first! If your child in pre-school or early elementary school, start by talking about it. Kids must be on board to quit; if they do not want to quit, conservative approaches may not be successful, and you may have to revisit it again after waiting a few months. The earlier you start the conversation, the better of you are since the upper front adult teeth will come in around age 6-7. I recommend starting out with simple reminders such as wearing a Band-Aid on the thumb or finger.
My kid is now on board - what can we do to help him quit his thumb habit?
- While they may relapse at times to find comfort, you may need to use additional items to help kick the habit. You can try a baseball batting glove, thin winter glove, or sock over the hand at night time. You can loosely add medical tape around the wrist to make it more difficult to remove, but please be sure it is not too tight. Another product is Mavala Stop which is a sour tasting nail polish to serve as a reminder. Always remember - couple the reminders with a tracking and reward system to celebrate the small wins. Praise will help keep the kids motivated - remember they want to make you happy!
What if the conservative habit break measures don't work?
- More aggressive physical reminders in addition to the above may be needed. An Ace bandage wrap around the elbow will make it more difficult to bend the elbow which will restrict their ability to bring their hand towards the mouth. You may also consider a wrist guard thumb habit appliance (TGuard brand) that is fixed to the wrist and plastic around the thumb/fingers
What if everything else does not work - what is our last resort?
- Orthodontic appliances are the last resort. If all else fails and we see the habit is causing significant bone changes, we can make what we call a "habit appliance" and cement it to the molars in the mouth. It is like a metal cage that fits near the roof of the mouth and difficult to remove. Typically, we will keep it in place for 9 months, but no less than 6 months in order to break the habit. If this appliance is needed, many times a palatal expander will be needed afterwards to correct the changes that have occurred due to the habit.
Orthodontists are skilled in helping you and your child with their habit issues. Additionally, we are skilled at correcting the problems that prolonged habits may cause. Be sure to talk to your local orthodontist early about breaking the habit - it will certainly make a difference in the long run!