Children develop many obsessive habit(s) during their formative years, adverse to their oral and dental development. Not surprisingly, parents world wide feel exasperated , simply because they seem incredibly hard to correct. Their feeling of utter powerlessness is  further compounded by their inability to comprehend why their children would resort to seemingly inane practices. Some of these habits include:  Sucking their thumb, body rocking, head banging, fingernail biting, pulling their hair and picking their nose are just a few of them.

The most important thing to remember is that all children find ways to relieve anxiety, boredom or fatigue in their young lives. An An obsessive habit acts as an important outlet for emotional stress in children. Also, we often overlook the fact that they observe parents and other adults closely even when they are not aware of it. Children imitate their parents’ eccentricities, while some others find solace and comfort in deleterious habits and repeat it until it becomes a way of easing tension.

There is cause for concern only if  oral habits persist beyond pre-school age including habits like thumb and finger sucking, breathing through the mouth, thrusting the tongue against the front teeth, lip and nail biting and grinding of teeth. Some habits like sucking on a pacifier is considered safe up to 6 months of age.

Obsessive Habits-flickrThumb sucking

Thumb sucking starts in infancy as the child learns to associate the habit of sucking with mental comfort.By the age of 3-4 years, the child matures, developing greater self control and understanding and weans off the habit.

Health concerns: Prolonged continuation of this habit can cause

Sores or calluses on the thumb/fingers,
Infection of the nails and sometimes, even systemic infections ( as the fingers act as a carrier of numerous microorganisms into the oral cavity)
Flared teeth
Narrow jaws due to the constant inward sucking force and ultimately, irreversible skeletal changes.

Care Routine: Interventions to stop such non-nutritive sucking  should be followed patiently and consistently .

Nail Biting

Nail biting is another common habit, especially when the child is bored, nervous or absorbed in an activity. The tendency to bite is more common if the nails are slightly brittle, since when a nail chips off, a subconscious attempt is made by the child to even the rough edges out. Dry chapped hands bother the child, who resorts to nibbling the skin off, in an attempt to smoother and less itchy.

Health concerns: Prolonged continuation of this habit can cause

  • Inflammation of the skin and cuticle around the nail, causing them to bleed easily,
  • Possibility of a serious infection of the fingers.
  • Small chipping and notching of the edges of teeth caused by chronic nibbling.
  • The above can also be caused by absent minded nibbling on pens/ pencils and bobby pins.

Care Routine: Beginning a daily routine of nail care, including using a hand moisturiser to soften the skin around the nails and to prevent dryness and a hardener to strengthen the nails. The hand lotion should be used repeatedly especially after every hand-wash.

Lip biting or licking

Lip biting or licking can similarly begin when children try to soothe chapped skin by biting continuously on it, eventually turning habitual.

Health concerns: Prolonged continuation of this habit can cause

  • A ring of red irritated skin surrounding the mouth
  • Increased tension of a muscle known as the mentalis, lying below the lower lip, causing furrowing of the lower lip.
  • Dental effects eventually occur due to a disturbance in the balance between the forces exerted by the muscles surrounding the teeth
  • Flared and spaced upper front teeth
  • Irregular lower teeth

This appearance completely depends upon how long the habit lasts.

Care Routine: 

A lip moisturizer helps to prevent cracking. To stop the already existent cracks from reopening, the moisturizer should be rubbed in up-down strokes rather than in with horizontal strokes. The dental irregularities are reversed in a growing child on cessation of the habit. Intervention in the form of dental appliances can be given by a dentist to assist in stoppage of the habit and reversal of the changes, ultimately restoring facial aesthetics and proportion. Orthodontic treatment is indicated in later stages when the growth changes cannot be reversed.The habit should thus be put to and end as soon possible

In conclusion,  The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recognizes that an infant’s, child’s, or adolescent’s well-being can be affected by oral habits and encourages health practitioners to take an individualized approach in the management of these habits.

Apart from the individual care routines recommended, remembering a few important things can help parents help their children overcome annoying habits

1. Remember that most childhood habits are harmless in the short term and tend to be self correcting.

2. Refrain from obsessing over it helps them get over them faster,

3. Identify possible sources of tension or stress at home or school and address them instead of nagging the child.

4. Provide the child with a relaxed environment – small things praising his efforts at little things will go along way.

5. Develop a family culture of uninhibited display of love and affection.

About Our Expert:

Dr. Pritika Rai is a paediatric dentist, practicing in Delhi. She completed her graduation from Government Dental College, Mumbai in 2009. Intrigued by the vast field of Paediatric Dentistry, she worked and trained for brief periods in various hospitals of eminence, including Naval Institute of Dental Sciences, INHS Asvini Campus (Mumbai), The Army Dental Centre, The Research and Referral Hospital (New Delhi), Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (Chandigarh) and All India Institute of Medical Sciences ( New Delhi). Motivated to provide the best quality of dental treatment for children, Dr. Rai completed her post graduation in Paediatric and Preventive Dentistry from the prestigious King George’s Medical University, Lucknow. The range and quality of clinical training received there has provided her with an array of treatment options for patients facing complicated dental problems with the latest advancements in dental practice. Passionate about her field, she has undertaken to spread awareness and change the traditional beliefs and practices about Paediatric dentistry in the Indian population.