As we know, it’s common for young children to put anything and everything into their mouths. This curiosity about the world around them is normal, and unless it carries into later childhood, is beneficial to development. Habits like nail-biting, thumb sucking, using a pacifier excessively, and tongue thrusting as you swallow all have negative long-term effects on your oral health. What’s more, these bad oral habits can cause disease or other health problems all over the body.
Self Soothing: Thumb Sucking and Pacifier Use
Children are born with a natural sucking reflex, which is why they tend to gravitate towards thumb sucking or get attached to a pacifier as a self-soothing tool. This impulse disappears around the four-month mark, but most children keep the habit for much longer. The natural timeline for thumb sucking or severe attachment to a pacifier is between six and seven months, or between ages two and four. This is natural, and most children end up growing out of any habitual thumb sucking or pacifier use by age four at the latest. Stopping this habit by age four is ideal, and usually results in no long-term orthodontic issues, because the habit is long gone by the time that permanent teeth begin to grow in.
These self soothing methods are problematic for several reasons. But primarily it is an issue because the pressure applied to teeth through the continuous sucking motion can cause issues with tooth positioning and the growth of the jaw bones. This can later manifest in an open bite, buck teeth, or underdeveloped lower jaw and chin.
Orthodontists usually recommend that children and parents work to break these habits on their own before treatment starts. If that fails, there are appliances that an orthodontist can install that make thumb sucking and self-soothing less pleasurable for the child.
Many children and kids in their early teens bite their nails. This bad habit allows dirt and disease from the fingers into their mouths and can cause multiple orthodontic issues. Biting your nails is bad for your general and oral health because you’re introducing bacteria and dirt into your mouth. The germs and grime you ingest while biting your nails can cause illness and the consistent biting is hard on your enamel. Biting your nails can also negatively impact your orthodontic treatment schedule.
Chewing your nails results in unnecessary wear on your teeth. It weakens the enamel and can even lead to chipping or the teeth becoming crooked. When you have braces, chewing your nails slows down orthodontic treatment. In addition to weakening the roots and making the teeth susceptible to unplanned movement, biting your nails can also displace brackets and wires. This makes your braces less effective and can result in more appointments to fix appliances or brackets.
Tongue thrusting should begin to stop on its own, like thumb sucking does. Like thumb sucking the physiological reason for tongue thrusting becomes obsolete with development. Tongue thrusting has to do with how someone swallows. When toddlers swallow, their tongues push against their teeth, and as they grow older this should transition to the tongue applying pressure to the roof of the mouth during the swallowing process. Some people never grow out of swallowing with their tongue on their teeth. This is what orthodontists refer to as tongue thrusting, or more formally orofacial muscular imbalance.
The teeth cannot withstand the consistent pressure of the tongue as they grow, which causes them to grow crooked and spaced incorrectly. Therefore, tongue thrusting eventually causes tooth displacement and an open bite. Oftentimes other non-orthodontic underlying issues must be addressed before orthodontic treatment can become effective. These underlying issues must continue to be treated beyond orthodontic treatment as well to maintain the work your orthodontist has done. This of course means wearing your retainer, but also means that your dentist or another doctor may address a second issue with you.