Thumb Sucking: Good or bad?

Post by: / April 4, 2017

Thumb Sucking: Good or bad?

As an orthodontist and new mother, I get a lot of questions from friends about their children and thumb sucking. Parents are often concerned that their young babies and children are sucking their thumbs and ask me my opinion on whether or not it will harm their children’s teeth. The answer? It depends on the child’s age!

Normal Self Soothing

Sucking is a natural reflex for infants and many babies actually start sucking their thumbs in the womb. Babies are born with limited eyesight and use of their senses, but their mouths are an important way that they learn about the world around them. (Remember that 4-month-old putting EVERYTHING in their mouths?!) Placing a thumb or finger/s in the mouth can provide a child with a sense of security and can be relaxing. For this reason, many children will suck their thumb/fingers when they are in an unfamiliar environment, around strangers, or are upset or tired. In other words, self soothing with a digit habit is entirely NORMAL for a young child.

What can happen with prolonged thumb/finger sucking?

With a prolonged habit (either thumb, finger/s or pacifier) the teeth and jaw development may be affected. The upper jaw may become narrow due to all of the pressure from the cheeks that occurs during the sucking. This may result in something called a “crossbite” where the upper teeth bite inside the lower teeth. Also, because the teeth are blocked from erupting because a finger is often in the way, the teeth may not touch in the front (called an “open bite”). These type of bite problems become quite severe if they are left untreated.

At what age should I start trying to get my child to stop the habit?

Thumb, finger or pacifier habits are entirely normal for young children and may actually help them self soothe or sleep well. However, because of the potential adverse effects on their teeth and jaws, you should start to encourage them to stop the habit around age 4. At this time, you still have a few years before the adult teeth come through (they usually start around age 6) and many bite problems will self-correct if the habit is stopped at this age. Children begin school at this age, too, so social pressures will often help the children stop the habit naturally.

How can I encourage my child to stop placing their thumb/finger/pacifier in their mouth?

The key thing to remember is to help your child stop, not punish them for doing it. Positive encouragement goes a long way here, and negative comments about their habit may make them seek security thereby making them reach for their thumb even more… Try to:

  1. Praise them for not doing it rather than reprimand them for doing it
  2. Focus on why they may be doing it (ex. New environment, new sibling, anxiety etc) and try to address the root cause
  3. Know their triggers and try to distract them during this time ex. Only sucks thumb while watching tv
  4. Reward your child for their good behaviour! Reward charts, stickers and small prizes can be very helpful for a young child

I’ve tried positive reinforcement but my child still won’t stop their habit! What do I do now?

Depending on the child’s age, you may give the child a break on trying to break the habit or it may be time to take a more definitive approach. If your child is starting to have their permanent teeth (around age 6) and the habit is still present, it may be time to consult your pediatric dentist or an orthodontist. Once the permanent teeth erupt, the damage to the teeth and jaws can become more significant if the habit persists.

Some other approaches to try at this point would include:

  1. Yucky tasting nail polish on the thumb/finger in question
  2. Sleeping with a thumb guard, sock, or mitten
  3. Orthodontic habit reminder appliance placed by an orthodontist

If your child is 7 years old and is still sucking their thumb or pacifier it is time to help them stop. An orthodontist can help encourage the child to stop and can place an appliance in their mouth that will remind them that the thumb does not belong in there. A simple appliance at this age can save a lot of headaches and complicated bite issues down the road.

Good luck!





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