What are poor oral habits?

Poor oral habits include a wide spectrum of habits including, thumb sucking, finger sucking, blanket sucking, tongue sucking, soother/pacifier use, lip sucking, lip licking, mouth breathing, and nail biting, among others. These habits can alter the normal muscle balance in the face, resulting in an orofacial myofunctional disorder, which can have a negative impact on facial growth. Thumb sucking is the most recognized oral habit that is widely understood to negatively affect the growth of the jaws and the teeth.

Why Is Thumb-Sucking Damaging?

Thumb-sucking and pacifier use both have some positive benefits for infants and toddlers. It gives your child a coping mechanism when feeling anxious or overwhelmed, and often starts when a baby is teething. Allowing thumb-sucking or soothing with a pacifier could also mean fewer sleepless nights for already exhausted parents.

Unfortunately, along with the pros comes the cons of pacifier use and chronic thumb-sucking. If thumb-sucking is only a short-term habit, it typically won’t have much of an impact on your child’s smile. However, if your child is four, five, or even older and is still using a pacifier or sucking their thumb, it can negatively affect their teeth, jaw, and other developmental aspects.

Dangers of thumb sucking

Problems with Malocclusion

Excessive thumb-sucking and pacifier use can cause issues with malocclusion, or a misalignment of the upper and lower teeth. The most common malocclusion that develops is known as an open bite. An open bite means that the front upper and bottom teeth do not come into contact with one another, even when the mouth is closed.

Overbites are also common among children who suck their thumbs or use pacifiers past the appropriate age. Overbites mean that the front teeth overlap the bottom teeth in an exaggerated way, causing issues with the way the front teeth are able to function.

Essentially, prolonged thumb-sucking can create gaps and incorrect alignments of the teeth and jaw. This can make it difficult for your child to chew and bite into foods, and even affect speech in some cases, as we’ll discuss later. Dealing with malocclusion issues will also make some children feel self-conscious about their appearance and avoid smiling altogether.

Changes to the Jaw and Facial Development

As a child’s growth and development continue, the jaw and face will make significant changes from infancy to adolescence. Extended use of a pacifier or constantly sucking of the thumb can influence the development of the orofacial complex, which includes the jaw, muscles of the mouth and face, and the teeth. The reoccurring pressure from the excessive sucking motion causes the teeth to shift in an unnatural direction, affecting the child’s overall facial structure.

Having either a thumb or pacifier constantly between the teeth simply doesn’t allow the jaw to position properly. With a severe enough misalignment, the facial muscles have to change the way they work for a child to effectively bite, chew, or speak. This can have consequences that affect a child’s facial structure and appearance, and even lead to an orofacial myological disorder (OMD) that will require extensive treatment.

Effects On Speech Development

Chronic thumb-sucking and pacifier use can even affect your child’s speech. This is often due to the open bite or overbite that develops as a result of this prolonged habit. The tongue will also have a tendency to push forward through the teeth with children who habitually suck their thumbs. Severe malocclusions and poor tongue control can result in a lisp or difficulties with S, Z, L, and R sounds, in particular.

Additionally, it’s so important for babies to babble and practice different sounds by shaping their mouths and exercising facial muscles. Infants and toddlers who excessively suck their thumbs or rely on a pacifier are missing out on vital opportunities to develop and practice these formative language skills. Although this is not an issue directly related to the teeth, it’s worth mentioning when talking about speech development and thumb-sucking.

Signs and symptoms of poor oral habits

Many of the symptoms of thumbsucking and other bad oral habits can include:

  • Malocclusion or misalignment of teeth
  • Changes to the jaw and facial development
  • Speech issues

Unfortunately, these lead to even more issues later in life. For more information, read more about orofacial myofunctional disorders.

Treatment for poor oral habits

Your speech therapist can provide an individualized program to help retrain the adaptive patterns of muscle function using orofacial myofunctional therapy which includes:

  • Normalizing tongue and lip resting postures
  • Establishing nasal breathing patterns
  • Eliminating improper chewing and swallowing patterns
  • Stabilizing the dentition from extraneous orofacial muscle movement
  • Addressing harmful oral habits 

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