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Thumb sucking: what’s the big deal?


In the past we have thought that thumb sucking was related to children wanting to soothe and comfort themselves.  While this may be a factor for very young children, emerging research is showing that thumb sucking can actually be related to the child trying to “establish” or open up their airway and breathe properly.

So what’s the relationship between airway and thumb sucking?

Studies have noted that children who suck their thumbs may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms: allergies, chronic ear infections, restless sleep, snoring or heavy breathing and bruxism (teeth grinding). With an exponential rise of allergies we are seeing enlarged tonsils and adenoids, decreasing the size of the airways and making it harder to breathe. These kids will often also breathe from their mouth rather than their nose.*

Are there dental implications of thumb sucking?

Prolonged thumb sucking, beyond the age of 5, can lead to dental problems which include: high vaulted palate (narrow upper jaw), posterior crossbite (upper molar teeth fall inside your lower teeth when you bite down), flaring out of upper front teeth, and anterior open bite (space between the upper and lower front teeth).  Normally, the tongue should sit in the roof of the mouth at rest. However, in a thumb sucker the tongue sits lower in the mouth which adversely affects the growth of the lower jaw. It doesn’t grow as far forward as it normally should, leading to jaw misalignment.

What should you do?

If your child is 5 years old and is sucking their thumb, it is important to have them tested for allergies. Also, have a thorough assessment done of their tonsils and adenoids. Treating the allergies can decrease the size of the tonsils and adenoids and help your child breathe better.

Determine if your child is getting a restful sleep. Sleep in the same room as your child for a few days to see if they’re snoring or breathing heavily, breathing from their mouth, frequently move around during sleeping, and if they stop breathing.  If they have these symptoms, the concern is they might have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) or early stages of OSA, referred to as upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS).  Speak to your family doctor or pediatrician regarding OSA and about having a sleep study done for your child.

Speak to your dentist to see if they have any dental concerns mentioned above.  They can help you determine whether intervention is needed and can help come up with treatment options best suited for your child’s needs.

* for more information regarding mouth breathing and its implications please see upcoming articles on our website.


Abinaash Kaur, BSc, DDS

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