February is National Children’s Dental Health Month. I did not want to let the month pass without some recognition of the importance of dental health for our children. I have chosen a topic that I see all the time in the general public and not so frequently in my office. That subject is the use of pacifiers and finger sucking. So often I witness small children walking around with pacifiers, or “nookies,” and I stop to think of all the problems that can come as the result of overuse or dependence on them. I know parents say that it is the only way to keep the child quiet, but there are so many serious consequences of their overuse.
In order to answer all the questions surrounding this subject, perhaps we should use a scientific method of analysis and not just someone’s individual bias. Let’s examine some of the not so good consequences of excessive use of pacifiers and finger sucking.
The obvious first response is disrupted growth and development of the child’s mouth, teeth and facial structure. I will not get into the hygiene aspect of putting germ-laden devices in a child’s mouth and all the sore throats, ear infections and every other little bug and virus children bring home.
How does this affect oral/facial growth and development? As a reference to help answer this question, I will use a report published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association. This study was a meta-analysis of over 700 articles published on this topic. What is a meta-analysis? It is a look back on all the articles of this theme and then a compilation of the results, with a very careful statistical assessment. So it is a thorough review and summary. They excluded over 90 percent of the studies for statistical reasons and looked at only the most valid lessons. The 15 reviews covered over 6,000 patients and came up with some very valid conclusions.
Thumb, finger and pacifier sucking will substantially increase the risk of developing a malocclusion, or disturbance in normal oral and facial growth and development. This would require corrective orthodontic treatment. This is not just to make Johnny’s or Mary’s teeth look pretty, but it would ensure that the teeth grow into healthy position for very important functional reasons. Narrow restricted jaws can have major health implications throughout a patient’s entire life. These problems include restricted arch form, cross bites, anterior open bites and distorted speech patterns to get technical. These can lead to airway obstruction, disrupted breathing and sleeping patterns and temporomandibular joint problems later in life. There is a whole snowballing effect of health problems associated with these issues.
So the health of your child going into adult life could be adversely affected by overuse of thumb and/or finger sucking and the use of a pacifier. It may seem like a stretch to go from pacifier sucking at age 3-4 to health problems 30-40 years hence, but it is true.
Why not give your child the best chances possible and try to get the child off the “nookie” or thumb/finger by age 2-3, and definitely by 3.
If anyone wants to talk over this matter, I am open to discussion. My only goal is to bring more evidence-based knowledge to my patients and the people of the Saucon Valley area.
Clarke Woodruff, D.M.D., has lived and worked in the Lehigh Valley most of his life. He left the region to complete dental school in Philadelphia and to serve four years as an officer/dentist in the U.S. Air Force. A member of Freedom High School’s first graduating class, Dr. Woodruff earned his undergraduate degree from Lehigh University. He received his Doctor of Dental Medicine degree (D.M.D.) from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976 and opened his Hellertown dental practice at 800 Main Street, Suite 102, in 1980. He was named a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry in 1987, after successfully completing a comprehensive examination and more than 500 hours of continuing education. Dr. Woodruff maintains active membership in the American Dental Association, Pennsylvania Dental Association, Lehigh Valley Dental Society and American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. In addition to his private practice, Dr. Woodruff is devoted to the education of tomorrow’s dentists and as such is currently chair of the Department of Dental Medicine, Lehigh Valley Health Network. His outside interests include vintage race cars, woodworking and singing. Find him onFacebook and check out the blog on his website, here. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 610-838-6597 or contact him via email.