Thumb Sucking: What it is and How to Stop it

As a parent, you would do anything in your power to make sure your child grows up healthy, happy and safe. But what if your child’s bad habit put that in jeopardy? Thumb sucking is common, and for most children, it’s a behavior that stops with age. But some children can’t shake the habit, and it can lead to damage as their mouths develop. Keep reading to find out what’s normal, what isn’t, and how you can protect your child.

What’s normal when dealing with thumb sucking?

Little girl in orange and white dress sucking her thumbFirst, thumb sucking is totally normal for babies and toddlers. Babies can even be seen on ultrasounds sucking their thumbs. These tiny explorers discover their world with the help of their mouths, but that urge should start to subside around six months of age.

Thumb and finger sucking is a way for babies to self-soothe. The suction comforts them in the way that breastfeeding or bottle-feeding would. Once a child has figured out that thumb sucking calms them, they can be found with a finger in their mouth when they feel hungry, frightened, tired or bored.

For some children, sucking on their fingers or a pacifier can help with separation anxiety and helps little ones get to sleep. Plenty of parents use pacifiers and teething toys to help regulate the emotions of their children. Typically, though, children lose interest in this behavior in favor of more constructive ways to handle their emotions, before they start preschool – and before their permanent teeth start to come in – but it’s not true for everyone.

Why should you be concerned about thumb sucking?

Children have 20 primary – or baby – teeth that are eventually replaced with their 32 permanent teeth. Although the permanent teeth begin to come in around age six, baby teeth lay the foundation for your child’s smile. If your child is still sucking their thumbs, fingers or a pacifier by the age of four or five, it can start to affect the alignment of permanent teeth as they come in.

Open bite illustration of a set of teeth from front and side viewThe problem with thumb sucking is that it creates pressure and suction in the mouth that can pull the teeth forward resulting in what’s called an “open bite.” This keeps the top and bottom teeth from touching, even when the mouth is closed. This type of bite can make it difficult for your child to eat and speak. If the teeth become misaligned in this way, speech impediments such as lisps and the inability to pronounce hard consonants like D’s or T’s can develop and potentially even become permanent.

Note that not all thumb-suckers are the same. Some children passively rest a thumb or finger in their mouths, while others aggressively suck. While both groups need to break the habit, the latter are the children you should be most concerned about, as they’re poised to do the most damage to their developing mouths.

Children who suck their thumbs excessively are prone to more middle-ear infections. Excessive sucking can cause the thumb to become calloused and the moisture can warp the thumbnail, making it susceptible to ingrowth and peeling.
Lastly, older children who continue to suck their thumbs in public or at school may be teased by their peers or judged by adults and that can hurt a child’s confidence.

How can you help your child quit sucking their thumb?

Little boy in light blue shirt standing outside sucking his thumbFirst, realize that thumb sucking isn’t inherently indicative of any disorders, it’s just an unhealthy habit for your child. And while it’s important that your child stop as soon as possible to avoid complications with their development, understand that children who suck are typically doing so to soothe themselves. Try to figure out why your child feels the need to comfort themselves this way and address those stressors.
Second, involve your child in addressing the problem. Two heads are better than one and including your child will make it feel like a team effort. Educate your child about how thumb sucking can hurt their smile. Or better yet, bring their habit up at their next dental appointment so that our dentists can help you explain why it’s important for them to stop.

A good place to start in this education is a book by Dr. Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist from Denver, called David Decides About Thumbsucking that many parents have found helpful.
Third, work together to break the habit. Praise your child for not sucking instead of scolding them when they do. Try putting a bandage on their preferred finger during the day so the texture can remind them that fingers don’t belong in mouths. Does your child suck their thumb at bedtime? Try putting socks over their hands before bed and secure them with tape. This method works especially well for older children as they want to be seen as a “big boy” or “big girl” and thumb sucking is for babies. When they wake up with socks still in place, they can be proud of themselves for knowing they didn’t suck during the night!
Make a reward chart out of how many days or nights your child can go without sucking. Use fun stickers or stamps to keep track on a calendar to show progress. Positivity and encouragement go a long way when it comes to kicking the habit.

What if that doesn’t work?

Habit device for thumbing sucking installed on teeth models
One version of a habit appliance. The bead prevents suction, making thumb sucking undesirable.

In the instance that your child doesn’t respond to the methods above, there is an alternative solution. Many orthodontists, including those here at Dental Depot, offer a range of appliances called cribs or habit reminders. These appliances are a good fit for children who aren’t quite ready for orthodontic treatment but need a reminder to keep their fingers out of their mouth.
There are several different types of appliances, and our orthodontic teams can go over them with you and your child at an appointment to discuss which one would be best. Once the habit is broken, the appliance can be removed.

Parents have enough to worry about and the consequences of thumb sucking shouldn’t be one when it’s a habit that can be corrected.

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