How Pacifiers And Thumb-Sucking Can Affect Kids’ Smiles

Here at Reichheld Ting Orthodontics, we know nothing is more important to our incredible Acton, Billerica, Lowell, and Westford area patients than their children! We’re the same way here and are constantly working to provide the best environment for them and set them up for success in every way possible. Parents sometimes don’t realize how much of an impact excessive thumb or pacifier sucking can have on a child’s smile if left unchecked. Well, that’s just what we’re here today to get a handle on! We’ve asked Drs. Jay, Brian, Steve, and Tim to give us the heads-up on pacifiers and thumb-sucking and how it can affect your kids’ smiles and put together a quick and handy fact sheet below. Keep reading! 

Is There Any Reason For Kids To Use Pacifiers or Suck Their Thumbs? 

Yep! It turns out that using a pacifier or thumb-sucking can be an essential stage in your child’s development. After all, it’s important never to overlook the fact that all babies are born with the natural urge to suck – it’s vital to their survival. This reflex allows them to feed, and it’s a big part of calming and preparing them for sleep. We can surely tell you that it’s important to every new parent we know! 

The American Academy of Pediatricians has put down some guidelines regarding pacifier use that we felt might be helpful to share. Check out these tips on pacifier use and care: 

  • Only provide the pacifier to your baby when they are not hungry, and avoid using it as a substitute or delay for meals. 
  • Avoid pushing the pacifier on your baby if they show no interest in it. 
  • Under no circumstances should you ever attach the pacifier to your child’s crib, neck, or hand, as it poses an extreme danger that can result in severe harm or even death. 
  • If your child relies on the pacifier to fall asleep, they might wake up if it falls out. Also, if your child is too young to put it back in themselves or cannot reach it within the crib, you may need to wake up and retrieve it for them.

Now, everything we’ve just said about pacifiers being a perfectly normal and healthy part of growing up applies equally to a child sucking their thumb. That’s right! There’s functionally no difference between using a pacifier and sucking a thumb for a child. One is just as good as the other. That means there’s no need to try and discourage your child if they prefer their thumb to a pacy. 

Can Pacifiers or Thumb-Sucking Be Harmful? 

So we’ve talked a little about some basics around pacifiers and thumb-sucking. Now we come to the part that’s not so cool. Yes, excessive thumb-sucking or pacifier use beyond a certain age can absolutely hurt your child’s developing teeth and jaws. 

But what is excessive use? And what exactly can this lead to? Let’s take a look: 

How Much is Too Much? 

When it comes to excessive sucking and when to start trying to ween your child away from a pacifier or their thumb, the basic rule of thumb (no pun intended) is two to four years. This rule is because once your child reaches the age of two, their teeth are coming in, the bones of the jaw are beginning to take more of their final shape, and too much sucking at this stage could lead to issues regarding the shape of their mouth, as well as how the teeth come in. 

Too much pacifier use or thumb sucking at two or past four years can lead to orthodontic issues such as a narrow upper jaw, the development of an open bite (which is a gap between the upper and lower front teeth when the mouth is closed) an overbite (meaning protrusion of upper teeth), or other orthodontic concerns that could require correction later. 

Additionally, it can guide the development of the mouth and tongue in a manner that makes it difficult for your child to pronounce certain sounds correctly. Sounds such as “s,” “z,” “t,” and “d” may be affected. 

Again, it’s important to remember that not all children who use pacifiers or engage in thumb-sucking will experience these issues, and the severity of the problems will vary from child to child. However, monitoring and gradually reducing pacifier use or thumb sucking as a child ages to minimize potential complications is generally recommended. 

How Pacifiers And Thumb-Sucking Can Affect Kids' Smiles

How Can I Encourage My Child To Outgrow Their Pacifier Or Thumb? 

Great question! There are plenty of constructive ways to steer your child past the point of too much thumb-sucking or pacifier use. Remember that you should never look to create stress or shame around these behaviors, but instead, gently encourage your child to stop sucking. The following helpful strategies can make things a little easier: 

  • Open Communication: Talk to your child about the importance of growing up and caring for their teeth. Explain that quitting sucking habits will help them have a strong, beautiful smile. Encourage them to share any concerns or feelings they have about stopping and reassure them that you are there to support them throughout the process.
  • Role Modeling: Children often mimic the behaviors they observe in their parents and older siblings. Show them how you manage stress or find comfort without relying on oral habits. You can inspire your child to follow suit by being a positive role model.
  • Distraction Techniques: When you notice your child reaching for their thumb or pacifier, provide alternative activities or toys to keep their hands and mind occupied. Engaging them in a game, puzzle, or creative activity can redirect their attention away from the habit.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Acknowledge and praise your child’s efforts when they refrain from sucking their thumb or using a pacifier. Offer small rewards or create a fun chart where they can mark their progress. Celebrating their achievements can motivate them to continue making positive changes.
  • Gradual Weaning: If your child is particularly attached to their pacifier or thumb-sucking, consider implementing a gradual weaning process. Start by limiting their time with their pacifier or thumb each day, gradually decreasing it. This method allows them to adjust at their own pace.
  • Engage a Professional: If you find that your child continues to rely heavily on sucking habits despite your efforts, it may be beneficial to consult an orthodontist like one of the Drs. Reichheld or Dr. Ting. They can provide personalized guidance and support, offering additional strategies to help your child break free from the habit.
How Pacifiers And Thumb-Sucking Can Affect Kids' Smiles

Give Us A Call to Set the Whole Family Up For Success! 

That’s just about it for this topic! If you have any more questions about how to give your kids all the tools they need for a happy, healthy smile that’ll last a lifetime, give us a call at (978) 672-5799 in Westford, (978) 453-3872 in Lowell, (978) 670-5900 in North Billerica, or (978) 264-0011 in Acton. Better yet, just fill out this convenient form, and we can schedule your first free consultation immediately! We can’t wait to see you smile!