Does sucking your thumb really ruin your teeth?

Robert E. Patterson, DDS
Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics
Thumb and finger sucking, prolonged pacifier use, and chewing/sucking on objects (pens, pencils, etc.) cause both dental and skeletal problems during eruption of the teeth and development of the jaws. This generally starts around age 5 but can continue well into teenage years.

Problems that can develop are an open-bite, crossbite, narrow and high palate, speech impediments, large overbite/overjet, and severe crowding of the lower teeth. Continuation of these habits can lead to problems that can only be corrected surgically if continued for too long.

If you are concerned about any of these habits, it is best to see your dentist and orthodontist as soon as possible.

Sucking on a thumb or finger is a normal reflex that soothes children during stress. Most dentists say the habit won't harm baby teeth but can damage the alignment of the permanent teeth, which arrive about age 6. Intense thumb-sucking also can damage the structure of the roof of the mouth. The most common difficulties from thumb-sucking are buck teeth and speech problems.

After the permanent teeth come in, sucking may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth. It can also cause changes in the roof of the mouth.

The intensity of the sucking is a factor that determines whether or not dental problems may result. If children rest their thumbs passively in their mouths, they are less likely to have difficulty than those who vigorously suck their thumbs. Some aggressive thumbsuckers may cause problems with their baby (primary) teeth. If you notice changes in your child’s primary teeth, consult your dentist.

Children should have ceased sucking by the time the permanent front teeth are ready to erupt.

Pacifiers can affect the teeth essentially the same ways as sucking fingers and thumbs.
Babies suck on pacifiers, fingers, thumbs, and generally anything they can get near their mouths. This is normal, but some toddlers suck forcefully or excessively, which can change the direction in which their teeth grow. Top and bottom teeth may begin growing outward if they are constantly forced up and out by a thumb; it could require orthodontic treatment or could even lead to decay due to misalignment. Finding gentle ways to wean your child off of thumb sucking and pacifiers could mean avoiding braces in the future.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.