Thumb Sucking and Teeth: How Thumb Sucking and Pacifiers Affect Oral Health

There aren’t too many things cuter in this life than seeing a sweet baby suck its thumb. It’s an image that is synonymous with the very young, and it’s a natural thing that babies have done for thousands of years.

It’s also amazing to watch the soothing effects of a pacifier with a fussy baby. They can go from distraught one minute to fully relaxed the next, as long as they have their trusty “binky”. Nearly all children have or use a pacifier at least in the first year or two of their life, and most parents are grateful for its help.

But as your child ages and grows, prolonged thumb sucking and pacifier use can begin to have a negative affect on their overall oral health (not to mention that it’s much harder to stop an ingrained habit the older a child gets).

how thumb sucking and pacifiers affect oral health

Thumb Sucking and Pacifiers Affect on Oral Health

So how do thumb sucking and pacifiers affect your child’s oral health? Here are some of the side effects of pacifiers and thumb sucking:

Abnormal Jaw growth

Both pacifiers and thumb sucking can have an adverse effect on how your child’s upper and lower jaws develop. Thumb sucking can change the shape of the roof of the mouth over time. In some extreme cases, it can also affect the bone growth of the lower jaw.

Abnormal Teeth growth

As your child’s teeth begin to erupt, they can literally “take the shape” of the thumb or pacifier. You might have seen children with an “open bite” where their top teeth and bottom teeth don’t meet. In some cases, a child can also develop an extreme overjet, where the top teeth flare outward. Both types of growth disruption can have a negative effect on how your child bites, chews and swallows food.


Some parents have been known to dip their child’s pacifier in honey or other sugary substances to get the child to suck. Unfortunately, this extra sugar in the mouth (especially as your child’s teeth erupt) can cause cavities.

Mouth sores

Some children who suck their thumbs or use pacifiers for prolonged periods of time can develop mouth sores or ulcers. This is especially true of aggressive thumb suckers (you’ll hear a “pop” when they pull their thumb out of their mouth).

These are just a few of the ways thumb sucking and pacifiers can affect your child’s oral health. If you’re concerned, getting them to a pediatric dentist early (you can start taking your child to the dentist within six months of their first teeth erupting) can help.

You’ll also want to monitor the habit over time. Many children simply “grow out” of the need to suck their thumb or use a pacifier at bedtime. This typically happens between ages two and four. Other times, particularly with pacifier use, parents choose to wean their children off them early, usually between one to two years.

Tips for Stopping Thumb Sucking and Pacifier Use

If you notice that your child is having difficulty quitting “naturally”, or if they’re talking around their pacifier or thumb, or they’re using the habit to soothe themselves in times of stress (when they might be developing more mature coping habits), it’s time to help them quit. Here are a few tips we’ve found have worked over the years.

1. Work on quitting together

Make quitting the habit a joint effort with your child. You can make a game of it with them, or talk to them about why you think it’s important to quit. Maybe set a goal or deadline, like, “This summer we’re gonna say goodbye to Mr. Thumb so you’re ready to go before school starts!”

2. Be positive

Try not to scold your child for sucking their thumb. Instead, praise them when they don’t. Say things like, “I’m really proud of you for not sucking your thumb during the movie. That was so grown up!”

3. Set a goal

Have your child work toward a goal and reward them when they don’t use their pacifier or suck their thumb. Perhaps you could say, “For every night you don’t suck your thumb before bed, you’ll earn a sticker. 10 stickers earns you a trip to your favorite store!”

4. Cover the thumb up

For thumb suckers that suck their thumbs automatically after they fall asleep, you can try slipping a sock or light glove over their hand before bed. Make it a game with your child. For some kids, it might be scary that they want to quit but their brain has other ideas while they’re asleep! So make sure they feel like they have some “say” in it before bedtime.

5. See your pediatric dentist

For extremely difficult cases, you can talk to your pediatric dentist about a temporary fixed solution in your child’s mouth. Some dentists may recommend a device that fits in the roof of the mouth and prevents the child from creating a “seal” or suction around the pacifier or thumb. These devices still allow your child to eat, drink and talk but will make it hard to continue the habit. This solution doesn’t hurt, but most dentists typically like to see this used as a last resort, since getting the child to quit on their own is always the best option!

Finally, it’s always best to check with your pediatric dentist about the best option for you and your child. Take your child to see the dentist as early as possible so they can monitor how thumb sucking or pacifier habits are affecting their oral health and work to develop a plan to make sure this habit stays firmly in the baby and toddler stages.

Remember: The above information is to be used as general guidelines and should not be substituted for medical advice. Contact our skilled dentists for a dental exam or professional medical advice.

Professional Pediatric Dentistry in Columbus Ohio

We are proud to offer professional pediatric dentistry, teeth cleaning and sealants for children in Central Ohio. Contact us today to learn more about pediatric dentistry for your child!