For many babies and toddlers, sucking on thumbs or other fingers, pacifiers and various objects is a natural way to self-soothe, helping them to explore their world, feel a sense of security and fall asleep.
However, many parents worry that allowing their children to suck their thumbs or use pacifiers is problematic — because the habit can be hard to break and may lead to dental issues if used excessively.
This issue is commonly known as pacifier teeth and can result in alignment issues with the teeth and jaws.
Thankfully, it’s perfectly safe to use pacifiers and prevent potential damage to the teeth and jaws, as long as the habit doesn’t go on too long. It’s very possible to use pacifiers, and gently wean your child of the habit as they grow.
Pacifier vs. Thumb Sucking — Which Is Better?
You may have heard anecdotes in the thumb sucking vs. pacifier debate — there are pros and cons for each, and it often comes down to personal preferences for each family. Sucking on a finger or thumb is very natural, and most babies will self-soothe in this way at least for a short time. It’s low maintenance, as you don’t have to worry about losing pacifiers, and baby can find their own fingers easily.
However, fingers pick up a lot of dirt and germs, which then end up in the mouth, and thumb sucking can be a harder habit to break.
On the other hand, pacifiers are available in a wide range of styles and colors. Depending on family or cultural traditions, pacifiers are also known as pacis, soothers, binkies, nooks, dummies and more.
They are inexpensive, are easily cleaned and can be more hygienic than thumb sucking. They should be washed often, especially when dropped on the floor. Some parents find that a pacifier habit is a little easier to break than a thumb-sucking habit.
Often, parents may try to choose ahead of time what they want to encourage for their baby — thumb sucking or using pacifiers. It’s important to note, though, that infants will have their own natural predilections for one or the other — or may not care to use either one.
How Do Pacifiers Affect Teeth?
The use of pacifiers in infancy can be a great tool for soothing, comforting and learning to regulate emotions. They are perfectly safe to use, and they fit in with babies’ natural inclinations to suck on things. However, if a longer-term habit develops and goes on for too long, it can lead to some serious concerns for dental health, among other issues.
Pacifiers Can Cause Crooked Teeth, Buck Teeth and Overbites
Here is a look at some of the potential issues pacifiers can create:
- Open bite: This is a type of malocclusion, or misalignment, in which the teeth are angled outward and may not completely close or touch, even if the mouth is closed. Larger spaces between the front teeth are also common.
- Overbite: A pacifier can also cause an overbite. It is a very similar malocclusion to an open bite, with the teeth directed outward. But in this case, the top teeth cover the bottom teeth far more than what’s natural.
- Buck teeth: In some cases, buck teeth, or protruding front teeth, are hereditary, and there’s no way to prevent them. However, thumb sucking and pacifier use can also cause the condition.
- Changes to the roof of the mouth: Extended exposure to pacifiers can cause a narrowing or general misshaping of the roof of the mouth.
Other Potential Issues Pacifiers Can Cause
Extended pacifier use, and the subsequent dental problems it causes, can also lead to some other issues, too:
- Skin problems: Pacifiers, if overused, can rub against the skin around the mouth, causing irritation.
- Speech impediments and eating problems: One of the consequences of the various malocclusions that are caused by pacifiers is problems with eating and speaking clearly. If the teeth, jaw and palate are pushed out of the correct alignment, making certain consonant sounds can be more difficult for the child. This can cause further communication issues and frustration for the child.
- Social issues: Pacifier use itself, as well as the issues it can cause, like crooked teeth, buck teeth and problems speaking, can be a source of embarrassment, especially the older the child gets.
Does Thumb Sucking Cause the Same Issues?
Extended thumb sucking causes many of the same issues as outlined above for pacifier use. If thumb sucking continues into childhood (once permanent teeth start to erupt around age 6), the child can easily face issues with misalignment of the teeth, jaws and palate.
Excessive thumb sucking can also cause sore, red, irritated and chapped skin on the thumbs or preferred fingers. Callouses and blisters could appear, and warping of the fingernails is possible as well.
Because the thumb sucking is much harder for a parent to take away, compared with a pacifier, it’s easier for this habit to last longer, or for a child to revert back to the behavior when they need comfort. The social pressures and issues may be more intense, if the child is likely to suck their thumb in front of their peers. Thumb sucking is actually more likely to lead to many of the issues, simply because it’s a harder habit to break and often goes on longer than pacifier use.
Whether it’s thumb sucking or using pacifiers, it’s important to note that not every child will develop these additional problems. The severity of the issues will depend on how often the child uses a pacifier or fingers, how hard they suck on them and how long the habit goes on.
It is very possible to use thumb sucking or pacifiers appropriately, safely weaning the child before it becomes a problematic habit, and have no issues at all.
At What Age Should You Take Away the Pacifier?
Pacifiers can be a great tool for parents to use for soothing infants. But when the habit develops and continues into childhood, concerned parents should know when to stop pacifier use to avoid any pacifier mouth deformations and other problematic issues.
The short answer is that there is no magic age when the pacifier needs to go. The experts differ in their opinions on this topic, and it can depend on how heavily the child depends on their pacifier, too.
For babies up to one year old, the sucking behavior is a natural and normal soothing response, and parents should not be worried about pacifier use. However, after around age one, sucking isn’t necessarily as important for soothing, and as teeth start to grow in, pacifier use can be more of a concern.
Between the ages of two and four, many children naturally give up pacifier use on their own, without much encouragement. If your child shows no signs of stopping though, it may be best to help your child break the habit.
If a pacifier or thumb sucking habit continues past age four or five, the risk is much higher for dental problems that will require correction later.
How to Wean Your Baby off Pacifier Use
Deciding when and how to wean your baby or toddler from using a pacifier is a personal choice for parents. Some parents choose to limit pacifier use or wean at a much younger age, while others allow pacifier use through toddlerhood and beyond.
When you’re ready to wean your child off of the paci, here are some helpful tips to ease the pacifier withdrawal symptoms:
- Positive reinforcement: It’s important to remember that young children can have deep emotional attachments to their pacifier habits and should not be scolded for using them. Instead, use praise and encouragement to reinforce the good behaviors you want to see. Use gentle reminders and praise your child when they don’t use the pacifier. Have patience, because the process can be difficult for some children.
- Rewards and charts: Many children respond very well to small rewards and recognition. Take positive reinforcement one step farther with a sticker chart or another system to reward big kid behaviors, like making it through the night without their pacifier.
- The paci fairy: Have your child leave their pacifiers under their pillow for the tooth fairy to take, or introduce the “paci fairy.” Tell children that the paci fairy takes pacifiers when they are no longer needed and gives them to new babies.Help your child package up their used pacifiers in a bag or box to leave out for the fairy to collect — or write out an address and pretend to mail it. Get creative and let the child decorate the package. Then, replace the pacifiers with small toys, or other rewards in the same package. Your child will love discovering what the paci fairy left them in exchange!
- Offer a trade: If there is a particular toy or special treat your child has their eye on, offer it as a reward for giving up all of their used pacifiers. For some children, this can be a very effective motivator.
- Wean gradually: Some parents choose to go cold turkey and get rid of the pacifiers all at once, without caving in or going back, but this can be difficult on some children. It may be more helpful to set more boundaries as the child grows, and gradually encourage weaning from the pacifier. For example, don’t offer a pacifier any time it’s not needed. If the baby/child uses a pacifier to fall asleep and spits it out without waking, don’t attempt to put it back in their mouth. As the child develops, set boundaries, such as the pacifier is only allowed at bedtime and naptime. Feel free to make special allowances for times of greater stress, such as during teething or when the child is ill.
Stopping Thumb Sucking in Toddlers
Weaning toddlers from a thumb sucking habit in some ways is similar to pacifier weaning, but it comes with its own set of challenges, too.
The pacifier is easier to simply take away or have rules and boundaries, but you can’t take away fingers and thumbs. In this case, the positive reinforcement and encouragement are even more important. The same ideas can work well for thumb sucking habits, too. Just be aware that it can be that much easier for a child to revert back to old habits, especially in times of stress, so be patient.
If thumb sucking is a consistent habit at nighttime, you can use mittens or socks over the child’s hands at night to prevent thumb sucking. During the day, if you notice thumb sucking, try some distraction tactics like offering a stuffed animal or toy or playing a song. Occupy their hands with a game or fun project.
If the thumb sucking is more of a response to stress or anxiety, try to figure out the root causes and find other ways to help your child deal with these emotions. Give your child lots of love and attention so they feel comforted and secure through the weaning process.
Should You Stop Your Baby From Thumb Sucking?
While many parents have concerns about thumb sucking and may want to start the weaning process early, it’s not necessary to prevent an infant from sucking their thumb. At that age, it’s a natural behavior and is generally harmless. It shouldn’t be a concern unless the habit persists beyond toddlerhood.
Will Pacifier Teeth Correct Themselves?
The malocclusions and other teeth problems caused by pacifiers and thumb sucking are more commonly referred to as pacifier teeth. If the habits have gone on too long, and the teeth and mouth have already become misaligned, the unfortunate truth is that they generally will not be able to fully self-correct.
When the teeth have reached this point, it’s best to consult with an orthodontist regarding corrective procedures once permanent teeth have started to erupt. An orthodontist will be able to advise you on how to fix pacifier teeth and offer other solutions.
When the pacifier habit is stopped by age 3 or 4, the affected baby teeth often have time to drift back into their natural position and realign before permanent teeth grow in. Keep in mind there are various degrees of pacifier teeth and self-correction can be different for each individual.
How to Prevent Pacifier Teeth
The best way to prevent the negative effects of pacifier use is earlier weaning, or avoiding using pacifiers at all. For babies, alternatives to pacifier use include breastfeeding, white noise, rocking, bouncing and swaying to soothe, and natural teething toys to chew on.
For toddlers, a special blanket, toy or stuffed animal can be used to comfort. Also, try a nightlight to help your child sleep and offer a sippy cup or a cup with a straw during the day for drinking that may satisfy the need for sucking motions.
Consult an Orthodontist In Your Area
If you have any concerns about your child’s pacifier habits, thumb sucking and binky teeth problems, talk to your pediatric dentist or orthodontist. At Fox Kids Dentistry & Orthodontics, we offer the convenience of a dual specialty dental office — with specialists in pediatric dentistry and orthodontics all in one location.
We have the latest technology for an improved experience, and we believe in the importance of involving the whole family — working with parents to find unique treatment plans and solutions, and making sure the child is comfortable for their appointment.