Does My Child Need a Thumb-Sucking Guard?

Self-soothing with a thumb is normal and natural in babies, but when they don't lose the habit as they grow up, thumb-sucking can cause changes to the shape of the mouth and teeth that are difficult to fix. A thumb-sucking guard helps prevent a child from putting a thumb in his or her mouth because it inhibits the satisfying feeling associated with it. Pediatric dentists and pediatricians can discuss a range of devices available and choose the best one for your child.

Thumb-Sucking Guards

A few types of soft plastic guards can fit on the hands or mouth to prevent children from sucking their thumbs. A device called an aversion therapy splint, as described by the University of Chicago Pediatrics Clerkship (UCPC), is a plastic cylinder that sits over your child's thumb. The cylinder is attached to a childproof wristband, and is too large to fit comfortably in the child's mouth. Pediatric dentists may also recommend a guard that sits in your child's mouth while he indulges in the habit, holding the thumb away from the roof of the mouth so that the child can't achieve suction, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC). The University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Medicine and Public Health mentions more basic thumb-sucking guards in the form of soft gloves or mittens. A homemade option, however, is simply a bandage wrapped around your child's thumb.

When Should I Use a Guard?

Consider asking your pediatrician or pediatric dentist whether your child needs a thumb-sucking guard if the habit doesn't go away after his fourth birthday. Dental problems often correct themselves, provided that children give up their thumb-sucking habit before their permanent teeth appear, according to the URMC. Those under the age of four don't need treatment for thumb-sucking, states the UCPC, but if the habit continues after the age of five it can cause actual damage. However, if children age five and older are infrequent thumb-suckers and there's no visible damage, treatment isn't needed.

Signs of Damage

Thumb-sucking affects the growth and appearance of the teeth and the oral cavity. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) explains that the long-term effects of thumb-sucking can include front teeth that stick out or don't meet when the mouth is closed, and a tongue thrust, which causes a lisp when speaking. If you do see changes in the roof of your child's mouth or the way his teeth line up, you should see a pediatrician or pediatric dentist for appointments.

Introducing a Guard

It's important not to scold your child about thumb-sucking or introduce a guard as a punishment. Instead, involve your child in discussions with your specialist about why the guard is needed and how it will help keep his mouth and teeth looking good. If you're already using a reward chart to help your child grow out of the habit, make a point of explaining how the guard will help achieve those rewards. It's also helpful to identify and reduce the triggers that cause your child to self-soothe, such as anxiety or boredom. Providing an alternative comfort object for bedtime cuddles helps children accept the use of a guard when they go to sleep. Toothpastes and toothbrushes for children, such as Colgate® Transformers, ultimately encourage your child to look after his teeth and elicit a more accepting attitude toward a thumb-sucking guard.

Some kids need a little help to stop sucking their thumbs, and a thumb-sucking guard is one of many approaches parents can take. By stepping in early to support your child, you help to prevent long-term damage. With your care and your specialist's guidance, your child can confidently move on from this habit.

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