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How Thumb Sucking Can Cause Developmental Delays

Every child on earth is born with the innate ability to suck, which—given the circumstances—makes perfectly logical sense. A baby must be able to perform this reflexive action in order to feed, gain vital nutrients, and grow strongly into infancy. Without this inherent nutritive tendency occurring after birth, children wouldn’t have the opportunity to thrive during childhood or reach their years of adulthood.

Yet, as the Pediatric Dental Specialist notes, developed oral habits can be either nutritive or non-nutritive in nature. Non-nutritive sucking is a natural self-soothing and calming practice a majority of children engage in via some shape or form, such as pacifier or digit sucking. A non-nutritive sucking habit tends to disappear voluntarily after toddlerhood. But if not, the habit may require hands-on intervention or treatment in response.

Children that maintain prolonged digit or thumb sucking tendencies can encounter an array of possible physical, emotional, or oral developmental complications. Fortunately, concerned parents can protect their children’s overall health and wellness by learning more about the lingering effects of this practice. Let’s examine how thumb sucking can cause developmental delays in young children.

Why Does Non-Nutritive Sucking Persist?

How can a standard infant behavior extend into childhood and beyond? According to Contemporary Pediatrics, the reasoning for this sustained habit is both “biologic, physiologic, and psychological.” Thumb sucking is an activity that falls into the category of mood-changing chemistry occurring in the brain. During non-nutritive sucking, decreased neurotransmission precipitates a relaxing feeling of euphoria in a child. This euphoria correlates to the creation of endorphins, triggering positive emotions. For this reason, the practice further generates a general feeling of comfort and well-being.

Infants—who discover those pleasant and peaceful physical sensations tied closely to sucking a thumb or finger—continue to repeat and indulge in the behavior. As time goes on, this habit becomes ingrained through participation in the activity unconsciously. Customary cues also stimulate non-nutritive sucking such as fear, hunger, excitement, boredom, fatigue, and sources of stress.

Not every child who participates in this pleasurable behavior forms a genuine dependency. Further perpetuation may depend on underlying causes, including physical prompts and emotional scenarios in a child’s daily lifestyle. Some will crave those enjoyable associations to cope for a while, but not forever. The longer the tendency goes on, the longer it tends to endure. An over-reliance on this coping mechanism is how thumb sucking can cause developmental delays over time.

Physical and Dental Development Complications

Remember, thumb sucking isn’t inherently a terrible tendency in itself. The harm lies in the potential results of such prolonged childhood habits. As the Mayo Clinic Staff reports, the risk of developing certain problems depends on the activity’s frequency, intensity, and duration. As soon as a child’s permanent teeth start coming in, their dental and oral structure is one of the main physical development concerns.

Proper dental and oral structure is critical for growing children, as it influences the way they look, how they eat, and the long-term health of their teeth. Prolonged thumb sucking can lead to an overbite, an anterior open bite, dental malocclusion (teeth misalignment), or incorrect tongue resting posture, placement, and range of motion.

Any hindering, misusing, or reshaping of these vital oral features can cause further growth pattern complications, such as upper jaw misplacement, inappropriate food biting and chewing, or an increased need for orthodontic work from teeth movement and misalignment. Not to mention, there is a significant correlation between oral structure and speech and language development.

Speech and Language Development Complications

Throughout the stages of vocal play, sounds, words, and phrases, children develop the foundational ability to make meaningful communication. To practice and further advance these interaction skills, children must use their lips, tongues, and oral cavity. That being the case, having a thumb consistently in the mouth does not beneficially contribute to positive growth. Thumb sucking can prevent greater developmental language-learning opportunities.

In the context of speech development, teeth formation remains crucially important. Toddlers and young children must practice oral-motor movements to develop the proper use of their tongues and allow airflow in the oral cavity. This development is key to creating the sounds needed for articulated speech production. With certain speech sounds, the tip of the tongue must touch the front teeth or move in between the teeth.

Prolonged thumb sucking can catalyze tongue and teeth placement changes, influencing how a child articulates sounds. The result can lead to speech distortion, especially the English letters of s, z, d, t, n, and l. A misaligned oral structure can make speech development a challenge, as it will be harder for others to understand what a child is saying. Predominantly, remember that oral motor skill advancement is integral to social interaction, and delays may lead to teasing or isolation from peers.

Emotional and Social Development Complications

Considerable evidence suggests that prolonged thumb sucking can hold a lasting influence on a child’s emotional and social development. An atypical experience may induce emotional insecurities or compound into heavier psychological distress. Parents may be unaware of how children can feel ashamed, guilty, shy, or reluctant to participate in daily activities.

In early childhood or elementary educational settings, many thumb-sucking children will not visibly display their habit in front of their peers. Rather, they may end up with varying oral fixations, such as nail-biting or pencil chewing. This can also lead to a lack of focus or a hindered limitation in classroom learning, participation, and interpersonal interaction.

Stopping the Habit: Begin With a Decision

As Dr. Susan Heitler remarks in Psychology Today, “Addictions begin because they serve life-enhancing purposes.” The dilemma with sustained thumb sucking is how the dependency no longer serves a fruitful purpose. The habit can induce the above subduing delays that affect the child’s life in the present and future.

Ergo, how can you effectively encourage your child to break the habit? Many concerned parents turn to common methods such as gentle reminders, positive reinforcement, alternative coping strategies, or a painless and innovatively-designed device to stop thumb sucking, such as theAeroThumb fromTGuard.

To a significant extent, time and consistency are the sole solutions to eliminate potentially harmful oral habits. Carefully consider the best approach for your family—a thumb or finger may be one part of the body, but that part connects to the entirety of your child.


Lessons from Thumbsucking, the Earliest Addiction” from Psychology Today

Pacifiers and Thumb Sucking “Non-nutritive Sucking Habits” from Pediatric Dental Specialist

Thumb sucking: Help your child break the habit” from Mayo Clinic

Why we can’t afford to ignore prolonged digit sucking” from Contemporary Pediatrics