Pacifiers and Thumb Sucking

Sucking a pacifier or thumb is a natural and instinctual part of an infant’s life. It provides them with a sense of happiness, comfort, relaxation, and security as they get used to the world around them. However, after the age of five, this can lead to dental complications.

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) reports that on average, children will cease using a pacifier before the age of four. Thumb-sucking can be a harder habit to break and may continue much longer without intervention.

How is thumb-sucking and pacifier use damaging to children’s teeth?

The damage caused by thumb-sucking or pacifier use can be difficult to spot since it occurs over a prolonged period. Some of the dental complications that can be caused include:

Tooth decay – When infants or toddlers get fussy, many parents try to soothe them by dipping their pacifiers in a sugary substance like honey. The oral bacteria feed on the sugar and produce harmful acids that attack the tooth enamel, leading to cavities and childhood tooth decay.

Jaw misalignment – Most pacifiers do not have a shape that is natural for the mouth to hold. Prolonged use and thumb-sucking can cause the teeth and jaw to develop around an unnatural shape, leading to misalignment.

Slanting teeth – Prolonged thumb-sucking and pacifier use leads to many orthodontic issues including slanting teeth which occur when teeth emerge slanted or protrude around the pacifier or thumb.

Roof narrowing – The oral cavity is extremely pliable during childhood and may grow around the pacifier or thumb as if molding to their shape, leading to a narrow roof and problems for the developing teeth.

Mouth sores – Intense or aggressive sucking, often accompanied by a popping sound when the child sucks, can cause painful sores or ulcers in the mouth.

If you do intend to buy a pacifier for your child, buy an orthodontically correct, one-piece pacifier to reduce the risk of choking and damage to the oral cavity. Do not dip the pacifier in honey or sugary liquids and wash the pacifier frequently with water as opposed to cleaning it with your mouth.

How to encourage your child to stop thumb-sucking or using a pacifier

Most children naturally stop using a pacifier and sucking their thumb over time as they develop new ways to entertain themselves, self-soothe, and relax. If your child does not give up pacifier use or thumb-sucking, you may need to intervene.

Some ways to encourage your child to stop are:

  • Having their pediatric dentist speak to them about stopping. Having the message delivered by a health professional may have a better effect than hearing the message from a parent.

  • Wrap the thumbs in mittens or soft cloths at bedtime.

  • Implement a system that rewards the child for not thumb-sucking or using a pacifier rather than punishing them.

  • Buy an ADA-recommended dental appliance for your child that makes it difficult for them to engage in sucking behaviors.

There is no quick fix for breaking a habit, but anything is possible with time, patience, and lots of encouragement! If these tips do not work, talk to your child’s pediatric dentist for more instruction.


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