Here's How Extended Thumb Sucking Can Affect Your Kid Later In Life

by Shannon Evans

Most parents know they're not "supposed" to let their kids suck their thumbs, but can any specifically say why not? It seems more like a vague notion that our generation absorbed through osmosis rather than a medical fact we've been informed on. So with all that ambiguity, is it as big of a deal as we've always heard? Or should we be OK with our tykes sucking their thumbs through high school graduation? Unfortunately, there really are some high stakes. When I turned to the professionals to find out how extended thumb sucking can affect your kid later in life, I was sobered by their responses.

According to Virginia dentist Dr. Jonathan Wong, it is completely natural for a child to take to thumb sucking as a form of oral stimulation because it is effective in relieving stress and creating a feeling of comfort. However, Wong explains, "Oral habits that persist beyond a reasonable age can have long lasting effects on the growth and development of the child's face, lips, and teeth." The face, lips, and teeth? That's a lot of coverage to be risking. So what specifically could go wrong in these areas due to thumb sucking? I hope you're sitting down for this list.

"Thumb sucking can cause a narrowing of the upper jaw and palate, a high vaulted palate, protrusion or flaring of the upper teeth, lip incompetence (lips that do not come together at rest), stunted upper jaw growth, anterior open bite (where the front teeth have an open space between the top and bottom sets when closed), and a lack of space for adult teeth, requiring expensive orthodontic work to correct," Dr. Wong tells Romper.

Intervening before a child starts losing their baby teeth is of the utmost importance, Benjamin Lawlor, a dentist who practices in Portland, Maine, tells Romper. "The repercussions of thumb sucking can haunt a person well into their adult life. Most kids will drop the habit around age 5 or 6 due to peer pressure and increased socializing with starting school. This is an ideal time because the adult teeth start to emerge between 6 and 7 years of age.

"There is a tremendous amount of force applied to the jaw during thumb sucking," Lawlor explains, "Both from the sucking movement and from the pressure of the thumb on the upper front teeth. When the adult teeth are coming in, any forces applied to the upper jaw will cause permanent changes. After development, corrections in positioning can be more difficult to achieve and are not ideal."

London-based dentist Dr. Ron Baise adds that in addition to structural damages, there are other risks associated with an overbite produced by extended thumb sucking that are often not considered, like chipped teeth, speech impediments, and low self-esteem. Additionally, Baise tells Romper, children may develop a preference for mouth breathing that dries the mouth out and leads to stained teeth, gum disease, and cavities, and has been associated with sleep apnea later in life.

So if you have a current thumb sucker under your roof, is all hope lost for them? Definitely not. Experts agree that early intervention is key and if acted upon before kindergarten, most thumb sucking cases can be corrected and skeletal changes are minimal. "Parents should encourage their child to stop sucking their thumb as early as possible," Lawlor emphasizes.

As comforting as sucking their thumb might be for a child, proactive parents can come up with alternative means to provide the sense of security that they need. Breaking the habit isn't easy, so be ready to provide your little one with lots of TLC (and maybe a little bribery) in the process.