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A Parent’s Guide to Habit-Breaking Appliances

By November 14, 2019August 2nd, 2022Blog

As a Naperville dentist for kids, a lot of parents seek us out because they’re worried about their child using a pacifier or sucking their thumb. These habits are completely normal in infants and sucking is a natural instinct. In fact, some babies even suck their fingers and thumbs in the womb! However, when oral habits, including thumb sucking and tongue thrusting, continue past the first few years of life, severe malocclusion (an improper bite) can occur. For kiddos who have a really difficult time kicking the habit, when all else fails, habit-breaking appliances may be indicated.

Tongue Thrusting, Pacifiers, Thumb Sucking and Teeth

A common question we get at Innovative Pediatric Dentistry is, will thumb sucking hurt my baby’s teeth? The answer is, no, as long as it stops early on. In general, a baby sucking their thumb is nothing to be concerned about. The same goes for pacifier use. Pacifiers are thought to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and they can be easier to deal with than thumb sucking because once a baby reaches a year old, you can simply take the pacifier away. With a thumb, you’re stuck with it. Most kids actually stop using a pacifier and sucking on their thumbs or fingers on their own between the ages of two and four. As for thumb sucking and teeth, when the habit continues, it can interfere with skeletal development and cause an open bite (when the top and bottom front teeth don’t meet all when the mouth is closed), protruding front teeth, an overbite, changes in the palate, and other issues with jaw growth.

Tongue thrust, also known as a reverse swallow, is when a baby or child sticks their tongue through their anterior incisors, or front teeth, when they swallow or even when they’re speaking or when the tongue is at rest. It’s common in babies who are nursing or bottle-feeding but it usually goes away on its own as a child’s swallowing evolves. In some children, however, it doesn’t go away and it becomes a habit. Because of the pressure of the tongue against the teeth, it can lead to an open bite or protruding front teeth.

There is debate about the right age to break oral habits. We typically tell parents that if a child hasn’t stopped a habit on their own by the age of two or three at the latest, they should make efforts to curb the behavior. When parents come to Innovative Pediatric Dentistry, we give them all sorts of advice on how to stop thumb sucking, tongue thrusting, and more. However, if home remedies haven’t worked, that’s when we’d consider a habit-breaking appliance. This is because, once the permanent teeth start to come in, the damage from poor oral habits can be severe and permanent, leading to the need for extensive orthodontic treatment or even surgery down the road.

 What is a Habit-Breaking Appliance?

There are a few different types of habit-breaking appliances, including removable habit-breaking appliances and fixed ones. At Innovative Pediatric Dentistry, we typically use a fixed habit-breaking appliance for tongue thrusting or thumb sucking because they’re the most effective and the success isn’t dependent on a child following instructions for wearing it. We leave it in place for about 12 months so that the habit is fully broken. 

A habit-breaking appliance for thumb sucking or tongue thrusting is made of thin, metal wire. It’s bonded to the back molars and goes behind the teeth so that it’s not visible when your child smiles. It also doesn’t interfere with eating. With most types, there’s a tongue crib that blocks the tongue or finger from coming into contact with the back of the front teeth and palate, which takes away the enjoyment. Since most kids do the habits unconsciously when they’re tired or upset, it also serves as a reminder because they feel the appliance in their mouth. 

In some cases, a habit-breaking appliance can be combined with a palatal expander during phase 1 orthodontic treatment. The expander widens the top jaw to make room for all of the permanent teeth to come in while the habit breaker stops thumb sucking or tongue thrusting.

 When considering habit-breaking appliances for kids, it’s best to have it placed by a certified specialist in orthodontics since they’re experts in preventing malocclusion, which can be the result of poor oral habits. When patients visit us for a habit-breaking appliance in Naperville, we refer them to Innovative Orthodontic Centers. It’s convenient since our offices are connected and we’re both part of the Innovative Dental Partners family.

 What to Expect with a Habit-Breaking Appliance

A habit-breaking appliance for kids is completely painless to get put on and it doesn’t hurt to wear. However, your child’s tongue will hit against it until their tongue gets used to sharing space with the appliance. This can lead to some tongue soreness and speech issues. Don’t worry; both will go away quickly. Since kids often use thumb sucking, in particular, to soothe themselves, when they first get a habit-breaking appliance, they can be a little cranky for a few days and may have trouble sleeping. This too will pass and your child will develop new coping mechanisms and ways to comfort themselves.  

 Now that you understand the basics of habit-breaking appliances for kids, if you’re concerned about your child’s thumb sucking, pacifier use or tongue thrusting, schedule a visit at Innovative Pediatric Dentistry today! We’ll fill you in on how to stop thumb sucking and tongue thrusting and evaluate your child to see if a habit-breaking appliance is the best choice for their needs. Give us a call at (630) 848-PEDO to book your child’s appointment.