Prolonged thumb-sucking can cause a dental and even a skeletal open bite

Thumb-sucking, a seemingly harmless act as a child, can change the facial form of the child for life and result in various respiratory, dental, and speech problems. Dr. Saju Mathew speaks about how a collaborative effort by the dental professional, parent, and patient can be used to break the habit and prevent some of the ill effects and eventual jaw surgery.

Aug 13th, 2013
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Think about it, a seemingly harmless act as a child can change the facial form of the child for life and result in various respiratory, dental, and speech problems — the child would have difficulty with something as simple as biting into a sandwich or a pizza slice.

Many of us can picture this scenario: a crying child driving you and everyone around you to the brink of insanity. What finally gets the child to stop? Sucking happily on his or her thumb. But this temporary relief can have serious consequences.

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Most children stop sucking their thumb by 2 and 1/2 years of age, and thumb-sucking is even considered normal until age 3. However, when the finger habit persists beyond the toddler years and into the adolescent years, there can be significant effects on the teeth, gums, jaws, and even facial form.

Prolonged thumb-sucking turns into a habit that can cause a dental and even a skeletal open bite. If the habit ceases while the child is still growing, the dental open bite can self-correct, but sometimes the help of a dentist or an orthodontist is required to correct the position of the teeth and align the jaws. Oftentimes the actual thumb-sucking may stop, but the child develops a tongue-thrusting habit while eating, speaking, and swallowing. This tongue-thrusting then perpetuates the deleterious force on the dentition and jaws. If the open bite is not corrected while the child is growing, then jaw surgery may be required to correct the bite.

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What can be done? As stated previously, until age 3 this finger habit is considered normal, but if it persists, we must discuss with the parents ways to stop it. Various over-the-counter treatments can be found at drugstores. Try to find out why the child has continued the habit; look for the etiology. If it continues, then we as a dental profession may need to intervene. There are various types of devices that can be used, from Bluegrass and tongue shield appliances to composite or metal spikes bonded to the lingual of the maxillary incisors. Even removable types of appliances can be used, but these are not as effective because children have a tendency to not wear them.

It is important to note that this is a collaborative effort by the dental professional, parent, and patient in order to break the habit and prevent some of the ill effects and eventual jaw surgery.

Saju Mathew, DDS, received his bachelor’s degree with honors from Cornell University. He then went on to complete his dental and orthodontic training at Stony Brook University. He has won a number of national awards and participates actively in various study clubs. He is currently in private practice in New York City and can be reached at www.hudsonriverortho.com or smiles@hudsonriverortho.com.

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