Many babies, toddlers, and young children suck their thumbs or rely on pacifiers to soothe themselves, and many parents are grateful for the reprieve. Not only is that understandable, but self-soothing is a vital trait for children to learn—it’s just not a lesson they should learn at the expense of their teeth.

Most pediatric dentists agree that you should wean your child away from sucking on pacifiers and thumbs before the age of three. Certainly, they need to break the habit before losing their baby teeth and growing in their adult teeth. Get familiar with what might be in store for the children who aren’t encouraged to give up their thumb-sucking and pacifiers.

Misalignment of the Jaw

Although pacifiers seem ideally suited for the mouths of babies, infants, and toddlers, many pacifiers are unnaturally shaped. In creating large, eye-pleasing designs that appeal to their target demographic of tiny-tots, manufacturers pay more attention to the child’s comfort and happiness than to the thought of the child’s future oral health.

The result of holding something so unnatural in a malleable, still-developing mouth is potentially damaging. Over time, the presence of a pacifier pushes the jaw out of alignment. That’s almost a guarantee for braces in later years.

Thumb-sucking isn’t as hard on the jaw, at least not necessarily. It causes its own set of problems, but the presence of a thumb doesn’t affect oral development to such an extent. That being said, it’s best to begin discouraging both habits as soon as possible. Your pediatric dentist can give you tips.

Protruding or Slanting Teeth

Both pacifiers and thumb-sucking interfere with the growth of new teeth. That’s one of many reasons to wean your children away from the practices before they start to get their adult teeth. A child may develop an anterior open bite, wherein the front teeth don’t come together and touch when you bite down. Posterior crossbites are not uncommon, either. That occurs when the back teeth don’t touch when you bite down.

Children who continue sucking their thumbs or using pacifiers as their adult teeth come in may also have an overbite situation. That’s a problem for thumb-suckers, especially. The thumb presses against the back of the front teeth, causing them to protrude.

Both actions can also result in a narrowing of the roof of the mouth. It almost tries to shape itself about the pacifier or thumb. It’s essential to limit your child’s thumb and pacifier use, even before you try weaning completely. The roof of the mouth is incredibly malleable during development.

Risk for Bacteria and Decay

Bacteria attacking tooth

No matter how much you clean those pacifiers, they still carry all the agents necessary for decay. Have you ever dipped the nipple into something sweet to calm your baby? Sugar attracts oral bacteria. After the bacteria feeds on the residue, it produces acids that destroy the enamel on your child’s teeth, ultimately leading to cavities and decay.

If you’ve ever popped your child’s pacifier into your mouth for a second, you passed your own bacteria to your child. If the baby ever flails around, pacifier in hand, and touches the dirty floor or the dog, that’s more bacteria. Similarly, unless you make your child wash her or his hands every five minutes, thumb-suckers get plenty of bacteria, too.

Decay isn’t the only concern, although it’s the most significant. No one wants their child to experience a cavity, or the process of having it filled. Moreover, getting fillings in baby teeth is an unwanted, unnecessary expense—unnecessary in that you can prevent it by teaching healthy oral health habits. Besides, baby teeth fall out, along with their expensive fillings.

Mouth sores are a concern, too. Here’s the point where you want to observe the way your child sucks a pacifier or a thumb. Never let your baby aggressively suck on anything, including a bottle. Once you hear loud popping noises each time your child starts in on the pacifier, spring into action. Aggressive sucking results in mouth sores and oral ulcers.

On a slightly shallow level, bacteria causes bad breath. You don’t want your child to have halitosis at such a young age. Not only is it unpleasant, but it’s also unhealthy.

Giving up their pacifiers and keeping their thumbs away from their mouths is difficult for children, who often fight the process. You have to be strong, however, as well as patient and persistent. The future health of your child’s mouth depends on it. Parents sometimes have success when they simply explain to their kids that their teeth won’t grow in properly unless they stop their habits. A rewards-based system is helpful, as well. You’ll find out what works for your family, but if you need any help, feel free to talk to a pediatric dentist who specializes in children’s oral care.