Info For Parents - Sparkle Dental
Thumb or Finger Sucking in Children We offer a simple, effective pathway to manage thumb and finger sucking.

How thumb sucking could be hurting your child’s face and breathing for life.

Are you concerned that your child’s thumb sucking is disturbing the alignment of their teeth, or harming their facial appearance?
You may have seen your child’s front teeth protruding, and their lower teeth tipped back.  There may be an opening between the upper and lower front teeth that matches the shape of their thumb or finger.          
The traditional advice has been not to be overly concerned until a child’s permanent teeth have come through.   However, this is contrary to research that shows younger children who suck their thumbs have an increased risk of developing posterior cross-bites by the age of 5.  This is actually a symptom of a bigger problem.  The upper jaw or palate is underdeveloped through a combination of lowered tongue posture and increased forces from the muscles of the cheeks.  The degree of deformation depends on the duration and intensity of the habit.
Narrow high palates mean smaller nasal airways and sinus passages, and more difficulty breathing through the nose.   Narrow palates are a known risk factor for the development of obstructive sleep breathing.  The evidence linking abnormal sleep breathing to behavioural problems and impaired neuro-cognitive problems is mounting.
Since facial growth is most rapid in the first few years of life, it is important to break the habit as early as possible to ensure the jaws develop to their full potential.

Addressing root causes

Helping your child to break their thumb sucking habit may have been quite an exercise in frustration so far.  You may have tried several approaches, from nasty nail polishes, band-aids, socks and restraining devices, through to reward charts or motivating them with fear.  So far, none of these have worked. 
Even if your child wants to stop, they may still find it a challenge.  The traditional thinking is that the habit is related directly to stress or psychological traits.   This is not based on any scientific evidence.
New evidence
from Italian researcher Antonio Ferrante suggests that thumb or finger sucking is actually a neurological problem.  This theory has the greatest scientific basis to date.  It offers an alternative and more predictable pathway to habit elimination.
Thumb sucking stimulates an area at the front of the palate behind the teeth, also known as the “palatal spot.”   This area is full of receptors for an important nerve called the trigeminal nerve.  The thumb on the spot is like a switch that passes a signal through the nerve, resulting in the release of important neurotransmitters to many areas of the brain.   The most affected part of the brain is called the cerebellum.  It controls the body’s balance and muscle movements. 
The four neurotransmitters (serotonin, adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine) released are also involved in a range of other functions including mood control, concentration, attention, memory, helping to enter deep sleep and prevention of depression.
Dr Ferrante used various postural analysers and with thumb sucking and control children completing a series of tests under different conditions.  He was able to determine that thumb sucking stimulated receptors on the palatal spot to obtain muscular balance and release of tension.  By encouraging the tongue to go on this spot during rest and swallowing, a similar outcome could be achieved.  In his group of children, those thumb sucking children with restricted tongue-ties did not have the same improvements compared to those children without restrictions to placing their tongue on the spot.
The implication is that thumb sucking is serving an important function, and that ceasing the habit without replacing it with good tongue posture may not lead to lasting results.   It suggests that children who thumb suck should be assessed for restricted tongue-ties and airway problems that would lead to mouth breathing and lowered tongue posture.

A pathway to stop thumb or finger sucking

In the past, an option for children who had tried all other options to stop thumb sucking was to use an anti-habit device in the mouth.   These appliances are cemented and fixed in the mouth.  They use either spikes or metal cribs in the front of the palate to discourage the thumb from the mouth.
Unfortunately, these options force the tongue backwards, which can lead to obstruction of the airway during sleep, and impair the brain’s restorative processes.  The bulk of metal prevents the normal tongue to palate contact that is required for normal neurotransmission, normal palatal and facial growth in a child, and speech.
Instead we suggest an approach that relies on a combination of strategies in a child who is interested in breaking the habit.   Our approach is based on the work of myofunctional therapists we have trained with including Sandra Coulson, who is also known as “The Thumb Whisperer” for her quick results and Joy Moeller from the Academy of Myofunctional Therapy.
The first step is to rule out restricted tongue-ties and nasal obstruction.  Once all clear, behaviour modification is achieved through

  • a series of physical reminders worn over the thumb or fingers
  • creating awareness of normal tongue on the spot resting posture
  • positive reinforcement
Once the habit been broken, there may be some spontaneous improvement of open bites between the front teeth.  However, if the habit has been persistent, it is likely a lowered tongue posture and tongue thrust swallow exists.  There is often a need for further therapy in the longer term to repattern normal rest posture and function of the mouth and facial muscles, and expand a narrow palate.  A Myobrace program could be an option to help solve this problem.  

A thumb sucking consultation is the first step in determining a personalised pathway for your child.
It is important that your child not feel criticised for their past failures or pressured into giving up their habit. The motivation needs to come from within for this approach to work.   This will help us to build the best rapport to partner with your child for success.  We want them to feel understood, and reassured that we will help them find other ways to “feel better.”

If you have a younger child, this video can help them understand the problems of their habit and to help them decide they are on board with finding a new way to stop. 
We look forward to the opportunity to work with your child and set up a pathway for better facial, dental and airway development.