What to Know About Effects of Thumb Sucking on Teeth

Medically Reviewed by Robert Brennan on June 30, 2023
3 min read

Thumb sucking is a natural reflex for children that often begins soon after birth. While it offers comfort and security, it can lead to thumb-sucking dental issues in the future. 

Thumb sucking dental risks include misaligned teeth, which is where they are out of place from where they should be in the gum line. It can also change the structure of your child’s mouth. When your child sucks their thumb, the thumb puts pressure on the roof of their mouth and changes how it's shaped.‌

Thumb sucking is a smaller concern for baby teeth. It has a more serious impact on permanent teeth. Your child’s teeth may grow in crooked or crowded.‌

The intensity of your child's thumb sucking, and the length of time your child sucks their thumb, impacts the severity of any dental problems. If your child rests their thumb in their mouth for comfort, it may not have much impact on tooth development. But if your child sucks vigorously, it can cause permanent, significant changes.

Common dental problems that thumb suckers face include:

  • The upper jaw extending out further from your child's face than it should
  • The upper front teeth extending upward and out, which is also called an overbite
  • Lower front teeth that tilt into your child's mouth instead of being straight
  • A gap between the upper and lower teeth where they should meet in a bite
  • An inability to bite front teeth together 
  • The roof of the mouth narrowing and pushing further up
  • Formation of a lisp‌
  • Your child's tongue not sitting in a normal position in their mouth‌

During the first year of life, one in three babies sucks their thumb. Most children stop sucking their thumbs independently between the ages of two and four years old. Only one in 20 children suck their thumb by the age of eight.‌

If your child is still sucking their thumb as baby teeth are coming in, talk to your dentist. They may want to monitor your thumb sucker's dental development more closely.

It’s good to take care of baby teeth to prevent tooth decay. As your child’s permanent teeth come in, it's important to promote dental hygiene. If your child’s permanent teeth are damaged, they may need expensive dental work to repair the teeth in the future. If damage is too bad, permanent teeth must be removed.‌

Your child should brush their teeth twice a day. It’s important to supervise and help until your child is able to brush independently. Flossing between teeth is especially important if your child has permanent teeth coming in that are touching. Bacteria can get trapped in smaller spaces.‌

A big part of dental care is watching what your child eats. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and avoids sugary foods that cause tooth decay. You should also make sure they avoid hard foods that may cause chips and breakage to baby teeth or permanent teeth.

Once your child has baby teeth, schedule regular dental visits to monitor for proper growth and development. These visits help your child get comfortable with visiting the dentist’s office for regular cleanings.

If your child has dental issues from thumb sucking, orthodontic braces may help move teeth back into place. Additional benefits include:

  • Reducing the chances of tooth decay and development of gum disease
  • Preventing damage that leads to tooth loss
  • Improving your child's ability to chew food
  • Fixing your child's bite to improve their speech
  • Lessening the chances for abnormal enamel wear caused by tooth misalignment ‌
  • Fixing jaw problems that may cause an underbite or overbite

How braces work to realign teeth. Your child's orthodontist may recommend one of several variations of braces treatment. Each application of braces has a different goal. Some are more effective for specific needs. 

Traditional braces have cemented brackets on each tooth, connected by a wire. Your child's orthodontist will tighten the wire over time to straighten teeth and improve your child’s bite.‌

Clear aligners are a common alternative to traditional braces. After taking a mold of your teeth, your child's orthodontist will create a series of clear aligners that need to be changed out regularly. Each aligner moves teeth a little more until you get the desired results.‌

You can expect your child to wear braces for 1 to 3 years, depending on what their dental concerns are. Once your child's braces treatment is complete, they’ll need to wear retainers when they sleep at night to maintain the results.