By: Dr. Elizabeth Eggert
Thumb sucking is a normal part of child development. It’s a natural reflex for babies, giving them a sense of security. And as they grow, it can become a habit to self-soothe or help them sleep.
Orofacial Myofunctional Disorders (OMD) are also common in children and toddlers. OMD affects the growth and development of mouth and facial structures and can affect a child’s speech and feeding abilities, as well as their developing airway.
So, what is the relationship between thumb sucking and Orofacial Myofunctional Disorders?
Read on to learn more about OMD and its connection to thumb sucking, how to help your child stop sucking their thumb, and how Dr. Elizabeth and Dr. Jeff can help if you think your child may have OMD.
What Is an Orofacial Myofunctional Disorder?
Orofacial Myofunctional Disorder is a disorder of the muscles and functions of the face and mouth that interferes with normal growth, development, or function of orofacial structures. It presents as improper tongue, jaw, or lip positioning during eating, swallowing, and speaking.
Symptoms of OMD include:
- Mouth breathing
- Tongue thrust
- Sleep disordered breathing
- Airway obstruction
- Fatigue, anxiety, or depression
- Difficulty articulating sounds like the “s” in “sun,” “sh” in “ship,” or “j” in “jump”
- Drooling past age 2
- Difficulty closing the lips to swallow
OMD can cause dental problems, changes in facial appearance (such as grimace, tight chin, or weak, parted lips), sleep issues like sleep apnea, and speech difficulties.
Causes of an Orofacial Myofunctional Disorder
There is no single determined cause of Orofacial Myofunctional Disorder. It is sometimes hereditary, but it can also be caused by:
- Thumb sucking or finger sucking past the age of 1 year
- Extended use of a pacifier (after 12 months)
- Cheek or nail biting
- Tongue, lip, or cheek sucking
- Neurological deficits
- Developmental delays
Let’s take a closer look at the first item on this list, thumb sucking and figure out how it’s connected to OMD and how to help your child stop sucking their thumb or finger.
Thumb sucking and Orofacial Myofunctional Disorders: How They Are Connected
Long term thumb sucking can affect the roof of the mouth or alignment of the teeth, and can be a risk factor for increased malocclusion. When a child sucks their thumb or finger for long periods of time, it can exert force against the front teeth as well as the palate (roof of the mouth) and cause changes to the dentition, including:
- Posterior crossbites
- Anterior excessive overjet
- Anterior open bite
It can also affect the direction of jaw growth and lead to the development of a narrow, high arched palate, an open-lipped posture, altered respiration, and abnormal tongue rest and function patterns. People with a high, narrow palate do not develop their nasal passage to its full potential and often have difficulty with nose breathing.
Over time, thumb sucking can anchor the tongue down and forward rather than allowing it to rest on the roof of the mouth. This can, in turn, affect speech development, resulting in improper speech patterns, such as lisping.
How to Help Your Child Stop Thumb sucking
Thumb sucking can be a difficult habit to break.
Children often stop thumb sucking on their own (typically by 6-7 months). It isn’t generally worrisome at that young age. But if your child is still sucking their thumb or finger after the age of 2, it is time to be serious about breaking the habit.
Appliances like thumb guards have limited success and have been associated with negative results like excessive weight loss, pain, poor sensory perception, and development of atypical lingual movement.
Instead, try the following approaches to help your child stop sucking their thumb:
- Ignore it, especially if they use thumb sucking to get attention. Sometimes all it takes is for the habit to become less effective for them.
- Talk to them about it. If ignoring it doesn’t work, try discussing it with your child. If your child wants to stop and has some agency in how they stop, you’re more likely to be successful.
- Use positive reinforcement. Give praise, positive attention, or small rewards when they refrain from thumb sucking. Keep track of their progress in a fun way, such as putting stickers on a calendar.
- Set attainable goals. Start with small steps, like instituting a rule of no thumb sucking in certain situations or at certain times of day.
- Watch for triggers. Notice when your child begins to suck their thumb: Is it when they’re tired? Stressed? Identify the root issue and offer other ways for them to find comfort, such as asking for a hug or squeezing their favorite stuffed animal.
- Be gentle with reminders. Scolding your child for thumb sucking is bound to backfire…especially if they’re doing so to comfort themselves. And pressuring them to stop can delay the quitting process. Simply offer a gentle reminder to stop.
- Ask Dr. Elizabeth or Dr. Jeff to talk with them. Sometimes having your child talk with one of us about why it’s important to stop sucking their thumb is more effective than a conversation with mom and dad.
- Try completing treatment with Dr. Elizabeth using the Myobrace Infant Trainer. This device helps to shape the developing facial structures in a positive manner and gives your child something else to satisfy their oral fixation.
Think Your Child May Have Developed an Orofacial Myofunctional Disorder?
If you think your child may have developed an Orofacial Myofunctional Disorder, come see Dr. Elizabeth and Dr. Jeff. We have experience identifying OMD and creating custom treatment plans for our patients.
To talk with us about your concerns and OMD intervention options, call our office at 651.482.8412. We’re here to help your child achieve a confident, healthy smile.