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Understanding How Prolonged Sucking Habits Lead to Dental, Speech, Swallowing & Airway Concerns



Sucking Habits: Normal or Not?

All babies are born with the need to suck, even when they are not eating. It is called non-nutritive sucking, and it is biologically normal and beneficial in healthy, happy babies. In most cases, the sucking resolves on its own as the baby becomes a toddler, and the need for non-nutritive sucking slowly diminishes. Sometimes, however, this adorable and harmless habit in babies may turn into a prolonged habit that starts to change the way your child's mouth develops. It may also affect speech and lead to mouth breathing and poor tongue function.


From Harmless Habit to Addiction

Many parents do not realize that there are physiological changes that happen in the brain when children suck their thumb or pacifier. You may notice that your child often uses their thumb when they are tired, cranky or upset. That is because sucking releases beta endorphins, the calming, soothing chemicals that attach to opiate receptors in the brain, creating a feeling of pleasure, and reducing pain or stress. The chemical release can be very addictive, and when combines with a subconscious habit of putting the finger or thumb in the mouth, it can be a hard cycle to break.


Oral Changes: The Negative Consequences of Prolonged Habits

Although most children will give up the habit on their own by age 4, some children retain their habit, which can lead to oral problems as they age, especially after the permanent teeth start to erupt around age 5-6.


Potential oral problems include:

  • Changes in Oral Rest Posture (lips/jaw hang open and tongue rests between the teeth)

  • Open bite (gap in the teeth)

  • Overjet (protruding front teeth)

  • Speech problems (lisping, poor articulation)

  • Tongue Thrust (tongue pushes forward when swallowing)

  • High Palate/Narrow jaws

  • Airway concerns from mouth breathing and narrowing of jaws


These negative consequences depend on:

  • Intensity of the sucking

  • Frequency that the habit occurs throughout the day/night

  • Duration of time the habit has lasted (age of the child)


Using Positive Reinforcement to Eliminate Sucking Habits

Helping your child quit their sucking habit doesn't need to be stressful. Children respond better to positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement, therefore, approaches involving negative consequences such as yelling/nagging, or coating the thumb or nail in bitter tasting foods or lotions are typically not helpful. Many well-meaning parents have resorted to these tactics, only to end up more frustrate because their child is now sucking even more. Although some families are able to conquer prolonged sucking habits on their own, many will benefit from the guidance of a therapist who specializes in habit elimination.


Who Can Provide This Type of Therapy?

A Certified Orofacial Myologist (COM) specializes in elimination of sucking habits, and, even more importantly, they are trained to help reverse the negative oral changes that have occurred from the prolonged habit. Your therapist will not only offer a fun, positive approach to eliminate your child's sucking habit, but they will provide Oral Rest Posture therapy to teach the tongue, lips and jaw how to rest properly and function properly, eliminate the tongue trust swallowing pattern, and, if they are also a Speech and Language Pathologist, they will help correct lisping/articulation errors that have occurred because of the habit. A Certified Orofaciael Myologist has undergone accreditation by the International Association of Orofacial Myology.


Source: International Association of Orofacial Myology