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When Thumb Sucking Becomes More Than Child’s Play

Why Do Babies and Children Suck Their Thumbs?

Thumb sucking is a reflex that calms and soothes during times of stress, and lulls a baby or child to sleep. It mimics the feeling of breastfeeding and bonding between mother and child. Even in the womb, babies begin sucking their thumbs to prepare themselves to breastfeed. Pacifiers mimic thumb sucking and offer the same soothing effect. For some children, the need to soothe isn’t satisfied by a bottle or breastfeeding, and for further comfort, they suck their thumb or pacifier. Most children drop the habit on their own as they get a little older and are more capable of processing their emotions.

Can Thumb Sucking Cause Damage?

Most pediatricians and dentists recommend that your child stop sucking their thumb or using a pacifier by age 4. It is not generally a concern until the permanent front teeth start to come in or if a child exhibits obsessive thumb sucking habits like constant or vigorous thumb sucking, which may be a sign of a broader underlying issue.

With a healthy bite, there is a small overlap between the front teeth. Thumb sucking or continued pacifier use might prevent teeth from fully erupting or cause them to protrude outward, creating an open bite where there is a large opening between the front teeth, even when the jaw is closed.

After a child’s permanent teeth come in, this can alter the tooth position and proper development of the mouth. If the habit doesn’t stop soon enough, permanent damage may be done, requiring the need for orthodontics or other dental treatment.

Steps to Help Stop Thumb Sucking

Most of the time, the best strategy is to ignore the behavior. If your child is older than 4 or you are already noticing signs of shifting bite or see an obsessive behavior emerging, you should mention it at your child’s next visit. Here are some ways to curb thumb sucking in your child:

  • Praise – Tell your child how proud you are when you notice they’ve gone a while without sucking.
  • Find the Cause – If you notice your child sucks their thumb when they're anxious, talk to them and find the cause of the thumb sucking instead of criticizing the behavior.
  • Reward – Sometimes the promise of a small toy or other reward is enough to break the habit.
  • Earn a Star – Consider making a chart for your child so they can see their progress as a motivational tool.
  • Wrap it Up – Sometimes a sock or bandage around the hand at night during sleep or quiet time can help stop the habit.
  • Bitter Medicines – There are bitter medicines available that you put on the thumbs and fingers that taste horrible to discourage the behavior.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you need professional help to break the thumb sucking cycle. Our office can help guide you and offer other solutions. There are appliances available, and for the most severe cases, sometimes a trip to a therapist or psychologist can get to the root of the problem.

Whichever method you choose, remember to use positive reinforcement to encourage your child. Criticism, nagging, or berating your child for sucking their thumb might make the problem worse and cause more anxiety for your child.