Babies Suck

Some babies use a pacifier. Others suck on their fingers or thumbs, sometimes with surprising determination and energy. Sucking is a natural reflex and is soothing to infants and children. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), most children stop sucking a thumb or using a pacifier between the ages of 2 and 4.

According to pediatric dentists, the sucking motions of the jaws and lips sometimes can move the teeth out of alignment. Misalignments, called malocclusions, often occur in the front of the mouth, although the back teeth may be affected as well.

This isn't necessarily a problem. As long as children give up pacifiers or stop sucking their thumbs by the time the permanent teeth come in, their long-term dental health is unlikely to be affected.

Even when children continue to suck after their adult teeth come in, parents shouldn't be too aggressive about stopping the behavior. Rather than trying to stop the sucking, parents should try to learn why the child still needs to do it. Here are a few things you can do:
  • If your infant uses a pacifier, buy only products that are constructed as one piece. There shouldn't be any parts that can break off and potentially be swallowed or choked on.
  • You'll often see pacifiers that are marketed as "orthodontically correct." These products are fine to use, but their shape probably doesn't make much difference, according to experts.
  • Don't try to calm a fussy baby by dipping the pacifier in honey or sugar water. The sugar feeds bacteria in the mouth and that may contribute to tooth decay.
  • Use positive reinforcement to encourage children to give up the pacifier or thumb.
  • Help them remember. Even when children are ready to quit sucking their thumbs or pacifiers, they occasionally "forget" and start the habit again. Experts suggest using reminder aids, such as an adhesive strip on a finger, may be all a child needs to remember to stop.
It's normal for children who have stopped sucking to start again during times of stress - when a new sibling enters the family, for example.

Source: Mark Helpin, D.M.D., associate professor and chair of pediatric dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and chief of dentistry at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.