Dental health month: when should I

by Maj. Aaron W. Engels
435th Dental Squadron

Many parents are concerned about their child’s pacifier or thumb sucking habit. Sucking thumbs or fingers is a natural healthy part of development and can even be seen before babies are born.

Parents often wonder if the pacifier is better than the thumb. The answer is yes and no. There is no significant difference in the problems encountered with either a pacifier or thumb habit.

The frequency, duration and force have the greatest effects. However, the pacifier habit is generally easier to stop than finger sucking. There are two main effects that are seen with these habits.

First, the front teeth can become flared or pushed out. Second, the upper jaw can become constricted. The good news is that both of these are correctable. When the habit stops, the front teeth will often go back to their proper position. To correct a constricted upper jaw, it usually requires a special type of dental appliance or retainer.

So, when should you stop these habits, and how? There is no need to intervene below age 3.
Many children will stop spontaneously; however, there are things you can do to discourage use. The easiest method is to discuss the habit with the child to see if they are ready to stop. A third party, such as your dentist, can often have a bigger impact. I always recommend most interventions when the child is ready to stop.
Gradually placing holes or cutting off increasingly larger segments of the pacifier can often be successful.

Gloves or a bandage on the thumb can be used as reminders for children, but only if the child is ready to give up the habit. A reward calendar can be used to chart their progress.

If the habit continues past age 6 or 7, talk to your dentist about other options, such as retainers, to help stop the habit.

Remember, it is important to encourage children to break the habit. Gentle reminders work better than punishments.