Thumb Sucking

Along with favorite blankets, teddy bears, and nap time, thumb sucking can be one of the most comforting aspects of childhood. According to a recent report, between 75% and 95% of infants suck their thumbs, so chances are there’s a thumb sucker (or a former thumb sucker) in your family. Is this cause for worry?

In most cases, the answer is no. However, it’s important to pay attention to your child’s habits, in case the behavior has the potential to affect his or her oral health.

What is normal thumb-sucking behavior?

Most children begin sucking their thumb or finger from a very young age; many even start inside the womb. Sucking is a natural reflex for an infant and it serves an important purpose. Sucking often provides a sense of security and contentment for a young one. It can also be relaxing, which is why many children suck their thumbs as they fall asleep.

According to the American Dental Association, most children stop thumb sucking on their own between the ages of two and four. They simply grow out of a habit that is no longer useful to them. However, some children continue sucking beyond the preschool years (although studies show that the older a child gets, the lower the chances of continuing to suck a thumb). If your child is still sucking when his or her permanent teeth start to erupt, it may be time to take action to break the habit.

What signs should I watch for?

First, take note of how your child sucks his or her thumb. If the child sucks passively, with his thumb gently resting inside his mouth, there is less likely to be damage. If, on the other hand, your child is an aggressive thumb sucker, placing pressure on the mouth or teeth, the habit may cause problems with tooth alignment and proper mouth growth. Extended sucking affects both the teeth and the shape of the face and may lead to a need for orthodontic treatment in the future.

If at any time you suspect your child’s thumb sucking may be affecting his or her oral health, please give us a call or bring your son or daughter in for a visit. We can help you assess the situation.

How can I help my child quit thumb sucking?

Should you need to help your child end his habit, follow these guidelines:

  1. Always be supportive and positive. Instead of punishing your child for thumb sucking, give praise when it doesn’t happen.
  2. Put a bandage on the thumb or a sock over the hand at night. Let your child know this is not a punishment, just a way to help remember to avoid sucking.
  3. Start a progress chart and let your child put a sticker up every day that he or she doesn’t suck a thumb. If the child makes it through a week without sucking, he or she gets to choose a prize (trip to the zoo, new set of blocks, etc.). When your little one has filled up a whole month, reward the child with something great (a ball glove or new video game); by then the habit should be over. Making your child an active participant in his treatment will increase the willingness to break the habit.
  4. If you notice your child sucking when anxious, work on alleviating the anxiety rather than focusing on the thumb sucking.
  5. Take note of the times your child tends to suck (long car rides, while watching movies) and create diversions during these occasions.
  6. Explain clearly what might happen to the teeth if the child keeps sucking a thumb.

Whatever your method, always remember that your child needs your support and understanding during the process of breaking the thumb-sucking habit.