Oral habits that initially seem harmless in children can cause dental problems if they continue into early childhood. These include common issues such as tongue thrusting, thumb and finger sucking, nail-biting, lip biting and pacifier use. Children tend to develop these habits for comfort, and many will go to sleep while sucking a thumb or finger. Most will outgrow harmful oral habits by the time they reach early childhood, and especially by the time they go to school due to peer pressure. However some will continue and may need some gentle coaxing to help break these habits.
Thumb and Finger Sucking
It is very natural for infants and babies to suck their thumbs and fingers as it gives them a great deal of comfort. The habit becomes an issue when it continues beyond the age of five, as at this stage your child will begin to gain their permanent adult teeth, and sucking their fingers or thumbs can cause dental problems. The upper front teeth can be pushed out of alignment and may stick out too far, creating an open bite or overbite. The lower front teeth can become inclined towards the tongue due to having a thumb or finger pushing down on them. In addition, the upper jaw can become elongated and narrower, creating problems with the way the teeth bite together. If the upper jaw becomes narrower it can increase the risk of a crossbite, where the upper teeth bite inside the lower teeth.
Most children will be able to decide to quit the habit on their own, but it can help tremendously if parents, caregivers and other family members offer gentle encouragement and positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement, such as nagging or scolding a child doesn’t tend to work very well, as thumb sucking offers comfort and security, and being told off can make the problem worse. If your child has extensive problems quitting the habit, then your pediatric dentist can help through supplying dental appliances that help prevent thumbsucking. These interfere with the placement of the thumb or finger and make the habit much less pleasurable.
Tongue thrusting is where a child will thrust the top of their tongue towards the front of their mouth, sealing the mouth so they can swallow. The habit places pressure on the front teeth, and can push them forwards so they protrude. This could mean your child develops an overbite, and they might find it more difficult to talk clearly. Treatment for tongue thrusting aims to break the habit through increasing the strength of the chewing muscles so your child can develop a new and more correct way of swallowing.
Some children will repeatedly bite or suck on their lower lip with their upper front teeth. This habit can create similar problems and to thumb and finger sucking, and may result in the front teeth sticking out too far in an overbite. It’s best treated in a similar way to thumb sucking, through offering lots of positive reinforcement and encouragement.
It’s estimated around 60% of children and 45% of teenagers will bite their nails, with most quitting this habit after the age of 18. It’s a habit that can develop due to boredom or stress, but it can leave the fingers feeling red and sore, and the skin around the nails can bleed and become infected. In addition viruses can be passed on from the fingers to the mouth, increasing the chances of infection.
Nail biting is not good for teeth, as it can weaken or chip them, damaging tooth enamel. In addition it can push the teeth out of alignment, and there’s the risk that bitten off pieces of nails could dig into the gum tissue. Even though your child’s teeth might be fine, they could end up with costly dental repair bills into adulthood. Nail biting can often be stopped with the use of bitter but harmless substances that are painted onto the nails.
Prolonged use of pacifiers into early childhood can lead to changes in tooth alignment or may delay speech development. It can cause a child’s upper front teeth to slant outwards, or they may not erupt properly. Most children will stop using pacifiers on their own, between the ages of two and four. If your child is set on using a pacifier beyond this age then you may need to take action to wean them off this habit before it causes permanent damage to their newly erupted permanent teeth.