Thumb or finger sucking by children is a fairly common phenomenon. While the good news is that it does not have painful side effects, the bad news is that it

  • PublishedApril 26, 2016

Thumb or finger sucking by children is a fairly common phenomenon. While the good news is that it does not have painful side effects, the bad news is that it can cause damage with long lasting complications. The allure of thumb sucking varies but according to experts boils down to anxiety, boredom and a method of self-soothing by children. If thumb sucking stops within the first few months or even a year of life, little damage happens and parents should therefore not be worried.

Thumb sucking becomes a problem when the habit persists past the age of five, a time when permanent teeth start to set in. This may affect the normal or ideal healthy bite (structure of teeth) resulting in several conditions, including the following

Cross and open bites

Once the permanent teeth set in and thumb sucking persists, then the sucking puts pressure on the upper jaw, its sides and the soft tissue on the roof of the mouth. This in turn causes the upper jaw to narrow down causing misalignment between the upper and lower jaws in such a way that the two jaws never properly meet from top to bottom. If one or other upper teeth end up on the inside of the lower teeth, then the condition is referred to as a cross bite. Cross bites can also occur on the sides of the mouth.

If there is an inadequate, vertical overlap of the front teeth in relation to the lower jaw, then the condition is referred to as an open bite. Tongue thrusting or jaws that do not grow properly may also cause open bites. Note that in some cases of open bites, the protrusion of the front upper teeth may be excessive. This could be indicative of another condition known as an over jet. In this case, the lower teeth are too far behind the upper front teeth. While the condition is caused by improper alignment of teeth, thumb sucking may exacerbate it.

Tongue positioning

According to medical experts, tongue positioning changes once a toddler hits five years of age. At birth, a child’s tongue thrusts forward (infantile swallowing pattern) to provide a seal or connection with lips. However, when permanent teeth start erupting, the tongue lifts to the roof of the mouth (palate) during swallowing, eating or even speaking because the teeth now offer support to the lips, which can seal on their own. While there are other causes leading to lack of proper transition of tongue positioning in the palate, thumb sucking does not help and may lead to persistence of the infantile swallowing pattern as it prevents the teeth from properly erupting.


The rift, gaps, poor tongue position transition or misalignment of teeth brought about by thumb sucking may also result into a lisp, a speech impairment where one has difficulty pronouncing or articulating certain letters or sounds.

Other effects…

While the above effects may not be life threatening, they should be corrected because they can also lead to:

Premature wear of teeth

Gum disease and bone loss

Dysfunctional chewing patterns

Low self-esteem


As far as cross bites are concerned, braces, retainers or palate expanders can be used to move the teeth into the right position. In the event of open bites, should thumb sucking stop soon after it develops, then the damage is minimal and the teeth can reset themselves into a normal bite. However, other measures can also be applied including putting a thin metal strip also known as a tongue crib behind the upper and lower jaws to discourage thumb sucking and retain proper tongue position. However, if thumb sucking does not stop despite additional efforts, very little progress will be made. Lisps can be corrected through speech therapy.

Prevention and control

Identify any circumstances that may be causing your child’s anxiety and help them deal with them in other ways. Remember to also affirm and applaud a child’s initiative to consciously stop thumb sucking. You can also make an appointment with a dentist to explain the effects of thumb sucking or prescribe a mouth appliance or bitter tasting medication that can help deter your child from it. Other parents swear by tricks including putting bandages or socks on the finger or using overly long-sleeved garments that act as deterrents to thumb sucking. Sounds controversial but remember these are merely suggestions and you can tailor-make to suit your preference.

May 2016

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