Seemingly innocent habits can ruin your child’s teeth, and that includes habits like thumb-sucking and going to sleep with a bottle. It isn’t hard for babies to fall into some potentially harmful habits that can affect their future oral health. Therefore, it’s important to help your child break any harmful habits that he or she forms or not start certain habits to begin with. Breaking harmful oral habits is one way to ensure the development of healthy primary and permanent teeth.
Thumb- or finger-sucking can help soothe a baby who relies on the habit for security. However, the action can have some harmful consequences as well, especially if your child continues the habit after age 3 or 4. While most children eventually outgrow thumb-sucking, not all do. If your child hasn’t stopped the habit by the time his or her permanent front teeth come in, constant thumb-sucking can push the teeth out.
This habit can also cause changes in a child’s jaw structure—changes that can affect the teeth. Besides crowded teeth, malocclusion or misalignment of the teeth, thumb-sucking can cause breathing problems, difficulty chewing and speech problems when the jaw doesn’t close properly.
Increased Risk for Dental Problems
Your child may be more at risk from the harmful effects of thumb-sucking if he or she has upper gum protrusion or an overbite runs in the family. A severe overbite, where there is excessive overlap of the upper and lower teeth, can cause headache pain, clenching and grinding of the teeth and jaw joint (TMJ) pain.
Although hereditary overbites are common, thumb-sucking adds to the problem by pushing the upper teeth forward, causing protrusion. As the thumb pushes the upper teeth and jawbone forward, it also pushes the lower jaw backward, moving the lower teeth inward.
Ways to Stop the Habit
Because of the possible dental effects, it’s important to help your child break the habit of thumb-sucking.
- Offer other methods of security. Show your baby early on that there are things other than sucking their thumbs that are soothing and provide comfort. Try singing to or massaging your child whenever you notice the thumb going toward the mouth.
- Try a diversion technique. Distract your young child’s attention from thumb-sucking with fun activities that keep both hands busy. Choose activities that your child likes to do.
- Get help from a professional. When all else fails, talk to your child’s dentist. If the habit continues past age 4, a dentist can fit your child with a mouth guard or palatal appliance.
While there are different orthodontic devices available, some of the appliances keep the thumb from pushing on the teeth or make thumb-sucking uncomfortable. A dentist can also explain to your child how the habit can have a detrimental effect on his or teeth.
2. Baby Bottle Tooth Decay
When you put your baby to bed with a bottle, the frequent exposure of the primary teeth to liquids that contain sugar increase the risk of tooth decay. You can help reduce the risk by filling your baby’s bottles with formula, milk or breast milk. Avoid filling bottles with juice or sugar water.
Although milk contains calcium and phosphorus, which protect tooth enamel, milk—including breast milk—contains lactose (natural sugar). Natural sugars aren’t as harmful to the body as added sugars, but any sugar can cause tooth decay.
Give your infant time to finish a bottle before putting him or her to bed. Drinking from a bottle allows for prolonged exposure of the teeth to liquids that contain sugar. The liquid from a bottle pools around a child’s teeth, giving decay-causing bacteria the food they need to stick to teeth and form plaque.
3. Sippy Cups
Once your baby outgrows drinking from a bottle, encourage him or her to drink from a regular cup, not a sippy cup. Sippy cups that are both convenient and prevent spills may seem like a practical solution if your child doesn’t yet do well drinking from a regular cup. However, a study published in the Journal of Dentistry for Children showed that nearly a third of toddlers with tooth decay drank from a sippy cup.
Drinking from a sippy cup is very much like drinking from a baby bottle. Both contribute to an abnormal swallowing pattern. Prolonged use of a sippy cup can lead to poor oral motor development, which can cause difficulty swallowing and poor speech skills. But when drinking from a regular cup, a child learns to control the muscles of the mouth and lips better.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that parents only use sippy cups to help their children make the transition from a bottle to a regular cup. Allow your child to drink from a sippy cup at meal and snack times and not throughout the day. Take the cup away as soon as your child finishes drinking.
If you have concerns about these or other issues that affect your child’s oral health, the pediatric dental team of Valley Oak Dental Group can provide information on children’s dental care, beginning at infancy through to the teen years.