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Breaking Oral Habits


Non-nutritive sucking is considered normal in the first few years of life. Thumb or digit sucking and use of a pacifier may be soothing to your child. The frequency, duration, and strength of the sucking reflex can cause alterations in jaw shape and tooth position. The severity of these changes will determine whether self-correction will occur with cessation of the habit and the eruption of the permanent teeth or if orthodontic intervention will be necessary in the future.

One should consider the following when selecting a pacifier:

  • It should be made from non-toxic material
  • It should be one piece with a soft, symmetrical nipple
  • It should have a contoured shield, which is wider than your child’s mouth.
  • The shield should have air vents
  • It should be dishwasher safe to allow for easy, frequent washing
  • It should be the proper size for your child

Safe Pacifier Usage:

  • Do not tie a pacifier around your child’s neck, hand, or crib
  • Occasionally, inspect the pacifier for signs of over use
  • Do not use the pacifier to delay meals
  • One should never dip the pacifier in sweet substances
  • One should never substitute a bottle nipple, as it is a choking hazard

Thumb or Digit Sucking

The need to suck is present even before we are born. Many will suck their thumb for a short time and will self-wean before or during the preschool years. If your child does not self-wean by four years old, suggestions for stopping will be discussed with you. It is important to not pressure your child into quitting; rather, offer words of praise when the child is not sucking and allow stopping to be their decision. Suggest activities that will engage your child if the thumb-sucking habit is now due to boredom. Remember, changes in family structure and dynamics or changes to routine may contribute to continuation of the habit.

Teeth Grinding

Studies report that 15-33% of children grind their teeth. It can begin when a child is very young when the nerve/muscle complex is immature and will usually disappear as your child matures and begins to get more permanent teeth. Grinding while sleeping or during a change in depth of sleep is most common. Most grinding will stop without intervention.

Nail/Lip Biting

For most biting the nails, cheeks, and/or lips is just a bad habit. When this is constant and severe, these biting habits may be a sign of anxiety or compulsive behavior. Treatment may include behavioral therapy to help your child stop the biting habit.

Mouth Breathing

We all experience periods where we are unable to breathe through our nose. Many times this change from nasal to mouth breathing occurs secondary to a nasal airway obstruction. This can be from allergies, illness, large adenoid tissue, and anatomical variations.

Some professionals debate the effects that chronic mouth breathing may have on the growth of the face. It is believed that chronic mouth breathing may result in a longer and more narrow face. We do know that mouth breathing can dry the mouth out which contributes to bad breath and makes it easier for plaque to accumulate on teeth.

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