Dummies and Thumb Sucking

Recent news reports have warned of the adverse effect on the development of the teeth of dummy and thumb sucking. So, when your baby is screaming and you can’t console him, what should you do? On the positive side, sucking can be a way for the baby to treat itself after a traumatic birth. The sucking action acts like a pump on the cranial bones and allows them to shift into a more comfortable relationship. Much better for your baby to suck a thumb or dummy than to feed excessively, causing vomiting and digestive disturbance. Sucking is also a comfort for the baby and something that they often stop doing spontaneously before they are one year old.

However, sucking on a dummy or thumb is a different action to sucking on a nipple, using different muscles and having a different effect on the development of the palate. Non-nutritive sucking (i.e. sucking but not feeding) tends to leads to a high, narrow palate, with the front of the palate (the pre-maxillae) being pulled forward. This in turn leads to four problems:

1. Buck teeth, with very little room for the adult teeth, often leading to dental extractions and braces to draw the front teeth back into line. It is the distortion of the bones, rather than the teeth themselves, that is the problem and so it is best to discourage sucking long before the adult teeth emerge.

2. Mouth breathing due to difficulty in sealing the lips over buck teeth. Mouth breathing exacerbates the problem, as the tongue lies low in the mouth and further narrows the palate, due to the unopposed action of the buccinator muscle. It also has implications for infection, as the normal passage of air through the nose cleans, filters and warms the air on its way to the lungs, protecting us from airborne infection. With mouth breathing, this first line of defence is lost.

3. Speech development can be affected due to the difficulty of making certain sounds with a high narrow palate e.g. the S sound. When a toddler is trying to talk through a dummy it is almost impossible to make any sounds accurately!

4. A narrow palate is perceived as less attractive than a wide palate – think of Claudia Schiffer’s beautiful wide smile or Julia Roberts’ smile. A wider face looks younger too – that line from the nose to the corner of the mouth is deeper and more vertical with a narrow palate.

Help!

So, try to limit the use of a dummy or thumb beyond the first few months of life. If your baby is older, you will inevitably go through a difficult transition period when you take the dummy away. Make it a gradual process, removing the dummy at times of low stress, so that the child can adjust more easily. Soothe the baby to sleep with stroking his head rather than letting him suck. With toddlers and older children who thumb suck, encourage them to think that sucking is babyish and encourage their hands to be occupied with other toys.

If the child tends to mouth breathe, try games to see how long they can keep lips sealed for. Make up rhymes using the letter M to strengthen the lip muscles e.g. my mum makes me mad!