Undesirable oral habits are quite common among babies and young children. They are also prevalent among adults. Because such habits can do damage to the teeth or jaws that is unsightly, expensive to repair, or even dangerous, it is important to address such behaviors as early as possible. Sometimes, simple measures can discourage such problematic actions, but sometimes intervention, either in terms of behavior modification or the use of a preventive dental appliances, may be necessary.
Some oral habits of babies, such as sucking, are universal and completely normal. They only become troublesome if they persist and begin to affect the bite and jaw formation.
Thumb sucking is a very common self-soothing behavior in babies, but can be detrimental to the alignment of the teeth if it continues as children get older. Some parents can help discourage thumb sucking by offering comfort during times of stress and offering the child praise for refraining from the practice. Once the child is a bit older, the dentist may be able to explain the troubles that thumb sucking can cause, thus helping to discourage the behavior. When necessary, behavior modification therapy, such as first substituting a pacifier for the thumb and then weaning from the pacifier, may prove effective. In situations where the child is resistant, preventive appliances can also be helpful.
Tongue thrusting is a habit in which the tongue moves to a forward position in the mouth during swallowing. It can cause an open bite and other orthodontic issues. Sometimes, a night guard or another appliance can correct the problem. In other cases, oral therapy is necessary to train the patient to change the tongue's posture.
Drinking sugary substances like juice during the day, or being nursed or given a bottle of milk during the night, can be detrimental to developing teeth. Where possible, only water should be given unless it is possible to clean or rinse the child's mouth after the snack.
It is important that children be given non-fluoride toothpaste until they are able to understand that toothpaste is only to be applied to the teeth, but not ingested, since fluoride is highly toxic if consumed in any but the smallest quantity.
Not only is nail biting undesirable in terms of causing possible infections of the cuticles, it can also have an adverse effect on the teeth, the bite, and even the digestive tract. The simplest solution may be applying a bad-tasting nail polish to discourage the practice. Other behavioral therapy may be helpful, including, at times, cosmetic manicures that make the child want to keep the nails looking attractive. There is some evidence that nail biting may be related to other obsessive-compulsive behaviors and may therefore, in severe cases, especially those involving finger biting, be helped by certain anti-depressive medications.
In many cases, bad oral habits of children may persist into, or develop during, the adult years, particularly during periods of stress. Common adult problems include:
Crunching on ice or chewing on popcorn kernels may seem harmless, but it can lead to damaged enamel and even tooth fractures. Sipping sugary beverages over the course of the day causes decay and possible infection. Although in some cases it may seem natural to use the teeth to tear off a bit of thread or open a plastic wrapper, using the teeth as tools can cause serious problems.
Similarly, teeth grinding, which normally occurs during sleep, can lead to a number of difficulties, including headaches, jaw pain and worn teeth. Bruxism usually responds well to the use of a bite plate designed to keep the upper teeth from making direct contact with the lower teeth.
Perhaps the most common bad oral habits of adults are not cleaning the teeth properly with both toothbrush and floss, and failing to visit the dentist as regularly as needed. Any dentist or dental hygienist will happily instruct patients in proper methods of dental hygiene. If dental phobia is keeping a patient from regular checkups, this warrants a serious conversation with the dentist and possibly a referral to a dentist who deals with such problems.