Many children find comfort by sucking on hands, fingers or pacifiers. Parents often wonder if these sucking habits can create a problem for a child’s teeth or mouth. Sucking is completely normal for babies and young children. It provides security. In fact, babies begin to suck on their fingers or thumbs even before they are born.
During a child’s first few years, sucking habits probably won’t damage his or her mouth. But frequent and long-term sucking can cause problems. This is especially true if the habit continues after baby teeth start to fall out.
Your pediatric dentist will carefully watch the way your child’s teeth erupt and jaws develop, keeping the sucking habit in mind at all times.
Many children satisfy their desire to suck by using a bottle or sippy cup as a pacifier. Others continue breastfeeding long after it is crucial for nutrition. Frequent sucking or sipping anything other than plain water from a bottle or cup may increase a child’s risk of developing early and extensive tooth decay. While breastfeeding is a good and healthy practice, continuous breastfeeding can still increase the risk of decay.
When sugars or other carbohydrates enter the mouth, they provide food for cavity-causing bacteria. The more times a child eats, snacks or drinks in a day, the more food the bacteria get. This makes it easier for a child to get cavities at a very early age. This condition is called early childhood caries. Early childhood caries spreads quickly. It often causes pain, can lead to a dental abscess, and puts the child at higher risk of having cavities throughout life.
Tooth decay is a serious problem for young children. This disease causes pain that interferes with eating, sleeping, learning and playing. Children with extensive early tooth decay may need to have root canal treatment or have teeth removed.
In the earliest stages of early childhood caries, the teeth may appear to have small white spots or lines on them. These spots or lines often show up along the edges of the gums. As the disease advances, these patches become brown and chipped. This form of tooth decay can get worse very rapidly and cause severe dental problems.
Decay can almost always be prevented by keeping the mouth healthy. This requires healthy eating, regular brushing and flossing, and visits to the dentist.
Here are several things you can do to prevent cavities in your children:
- Take your child to see a dentist no later than age 1 as a foundation for good oral health.
- Do not allow your child to walk around with a bottle or sippy cup to continually drink from or use as a pacifier.
- Whether you’re breastfeeding or using a bottle, wipe your baby’s gums and teeth with a damp washcloth or gauze pad at least twice a day.
- Bacteria that cause cavities are typically passed from mothers to children.
- Optimal levels of fluoride in water. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay.
Quit the habit!
Most children stop sucking habits on their own, but some children need the help of their parents.
Frequent or intense habits over a prolonged period of time can affect the way the child’s teeth bite together, as well as the growth of the jaws and bones that support the teeth.
- The top front teeth to slant out
- The bottom front teeth to tilt in
- The upper and lower jaws to be misaligned
- The roof of the mouth to be narrower side to side
Baby teeth stay in children’s mouths long after babyhood. In fact, some of these teeth remain until children become teenagers. For this reason, it is important to keep baby teeth healthy and to stop tooth decay as soon as it is discovered. As with adult teeth, tooth decay in baby teeth can lead to pain and trouble with eating and speaking. If baby teeth are removed or lost early, other teeth can move into the space that’s left. This can cause the adult teeth to come in crowded or crooked. As with adult teeth, dental infections can become life-threatening if left untreated.