Thumb Sucking

Your child won't keep his or her first teeth forever, but that doesn't mean those tiny pearly whites don't need conscientious care. Maintaining your child's dental health now will provide health benefits well into adulthood, as primary (baby) teeth serve some extremely important functions.

Kids developing jaws and teeth.

For one thing, primary teeth serve as guides for the eruption of permanent (adult) teeth, holding the space into which these new teeth will erupt. The crowns (tops) of the permanent teeth actually push against the roots of the baby teeth, causing them to resorb, or melt away. In this way, the adult teeth can take their proper place.

What's more, your child's primary teeth will be there for most of childhood, helping your child to bite, chew and speak. For the first six or so years, he or she will be relying on primary teeth exclusively to perform these important functions. Until around age 12, your child will have a mix of primary and permanent teeth. You will want to make sure those teeth stay healthy and are lost naturally — when it's time.

Your Child's First Teeth

Kids mouth anatomy.

Your child's 20 baby teeth will begin to appear usually between six and nine months, though in some cases it may start as early as three months or as late as twelve months. The two lower front teeth tend to erupt first, followed by the two upper ones, these teeth are called the central incisors. Then the neighboring teeth called lateral incisors will erupt too. The first molars come in next, followed by the canines (eyeteeth). And finally, the last teeth to erupt are the two-year molars. Sometimes your baby can experience teething discomfort during this process. If so, there are courses of action to help make your child more comfortable.

Your infant's gums should be gently wiped after each feeding with a water-soaked gauze pad or damp washcloth. As soon as the first tooth erupts, establish a daily brushing routine with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush and no more than a thin smear of fluoridated toothpaste. Your child may need your help with this important task until about the age of 6.

Your Child's First Dental Appointment

Age one dental visit

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that your child see a dentist by his/her first birthday, or as early as the first tooth erupts. Though this may sound early, learning proper pediatric oral hygiene techniques, checking for cavities, and watching for developmental problems is extremely important.

There are a number of forms of tooth decay that can affect babies and small children. Early Childhood Caries (tooth decay) can develop rapidly, progressing from the hard, outer enamel layer of a tooth into the softer, inner dentin in six months or less.

Most of all, it's important for your child to have a positive experience at the dental office as he/she will be a regular visitor for years to come.

Pediatric Dental Treatments

There are a variety of dental treatments offered to prevent tooth decay in children, or to save or repair teeth when necessary. They include:

Topical Fluoride — Fluoride incorporates into the enamel of teeth, making it harder and more resistant to decay. Although there is a small amount of fluoride in toothpastes and in some drinking water supplies, a higher concentration can be applied professionally to your child's teeth for maximum protection.

Dental Sealants — A plastic coating can be applied at the dental office to prevent cavities by sealing the little grooves on the chewing surfaces of back teeth known as “pits and fissures.” These little crevices become the perfect environments for decay-causing bacteria. Immature tooth enamel is more permeable and therefore less resistant to tooth decay. Dental sealants are easy to apply and provide years of protection (Watch Dental Sealant Video).

Root Canal Treatment — Perhaps you have had a root canal treatment yourself, to save an injured or severely decayed tooth. Well, sometimes children need root canals, too. In children these are called pulpotomies or pulpectomies. As mentioned above, baby teeth are important guides to the permanent teeth that are already forming beneath your child's gums. Therefore, saving them from premature loss can help prevent a malocclusion (“mal” – bad; “occlusion” – bite) that requires orthodontic treatment.

Bonding — Chips and minor fractures to front teeth — common childhood occurrences — can be repaired with tooth-colored bonding materials. These lifelike resins made of plastic and glass can be used on baby teeth as well as permanent teeth and last until the youngster has completed facial growth (Watch Bonding Video).

Orthodontic Concerns

Orthodontic Problems.

By around age 7, most malocclusions have become evident. Interceptive orthodontic treatment around this time can help direct proper tooth positioning and/or jaw growth, eliminating or simplifying the need for later treatment. There are many orthodontic problems that can be detected early and are examples of why a trained professional should evaluate your child during his/her growth and development.

Sports & Your Child's Teeth

If your child is active in sports, a custom-made mouthguard is a highly recommended safeguard. According to the American Dental Association, an athlete is 60 times more likely to suffer dental harm when not wearing one of these protective devices. A custom mouthguard is made specifically for your child using a model of his or her teeth. This will offer greater protection than an off-the-shelf model. It's an investment that pays off highly in the form of reduced pain, suffering — and dental expenses down the road!

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Dangers of Thumb Sucking.

Sucking on a thumb or finger is a completely normal habit that some babies develop even before they're born. It's soothing, and it also helps babies make contact with and explore their environment. If sucking habits go on much past the age of 3, however, it's possible that bite problems may arise.

In a normal bite, the upper teeth grow to overlap the lower teeth. But it's possible for the pressure of a thumb, finger or pacifier resting on the gums to interfere with normal tooth eruption and even jaw growth. Some thumb-suckers develop an “open bite,” meaning the teeth don't overlap when a child bites together (View Example); instead, there is an open space between the upper and lower teeth. That's why thumb sucking is definitely something we should keep an eye on, though we don't want to intervene too soon.

Breaking the Habit

It's important to keep in mind that most children break thumb-sucking habits on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. So if you're trying to get your child to stop, the first thing to do is simply ignore it. Pacifiers will usually be given up more quickly than thumbs or fingers. If your child seems unable to stop when it's time, positive reinforcements tend to work better than negative (e.g., putting a bitter substance on the thumb). Here are some things you can try:

  • Praise & Reward. Explain to your child why it's so important not to suck thumbs and think of a way to reward her for not doing it — as long as it's not with tooth-harming sweets! Stickers or an activity they enjoy might serve well. Always offer gentle reminders rather than scold when you notice a thumb in your child's mouth, and praise her when she stops.
  • Comfort & Distract. Children have different triggers for thumb sucking. Does your child tend to do it when stressed or bored? If so, some extra hugs might help, or an activity to keep those little hands busy.
  • Get Creative. You know your child best. Maybe there's a method that would be particularly motivating to him. For example, you could tie his pacifier to a helium balloon and send it up to the Tooth Fairy. When she receives it, she can leave a special present under his pillow!
  • Get Help. If your child sucks her thumb, fingers, or a pacifier, dentistry can help. Sometimes a brief conversation with a caring dental professional is all that's needed to help her understand how it will help her teeth to kick the habit. If necessary, she can be fitted with a special oral appliance called a tongue crib (View Example), which physically prevents thumb sucking and can usually break the habit in a few months.

Thumb sucking is just one reason why it's important to maintain your child's regular schedule of dental exams, starting at age 1. At these appointments, you and your child can also learn effective oral hygiene techniques to help prevent tooth decay. Meanwhile, your child's dental growth and development will be monitored. Though orthodontics can usually fix bite problems that result from sucking habits, we'd just as soon help you avoid this expense if possible!

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