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July 4th, 2013

If your infant or child has a finger or thumb sucking habit, should you try to stop the habit or replace it with a pacifier?  When is the critical time to stop?
Most children will not accept a pacifier in place of a finger or thumb, but it is worth a try in infants.  Pacifiers will usually do less damage than fingers and are easier to take away later on.  But what about the thumb sucking habit that won’t go away?  All babies have a natural instinct to suck which lasts longer in some children.  Trying to break the habit too early can lead to emotional problems and stress.
Most kids will stop when peer pressure tells them that it is not appropriate, usually when they start school at age 5.  The effects on the jaws by this time are usually minimal.  Your dentist will assess the bite with regular checkups, starting at age 2.  The critical time comes at about age 7 when the permanent front teeth start to erupt.  A habit at this point can alter the position of the teeth and the development of the jaws, affecting later function and appearance.
Your dentist may elect to place a habit breaking appliance in very difficult cases.  This wire “cage” behind the front teeth stops the habit cold and allows for normal development.   A few uneasy nights might follow, but the habit will be gone and normal development will follow.
Secondarily, the finger sucking habit can impact swallowing and speech patterns.  By breaking the habit early, these developments can be avoided in most cases.  Regular checkups allow your dental team to evaluate your child and recommend proper treatment.

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