Thumb-sucking, Dental Care, and Your Child

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, no. However, it's important to pay attention to your child's habits, in case his or her behavior has the potential to affect his oral health.

What Is Normal Thumb-Sucking Behavior?

The majority of children suck a thumb or a finger from a very young age; most 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 his chances of continuing to suck his 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 thumb. If he sucks passively, with his thumb gently resting inside his or her mouth, your child is less likely to cause damage. If, on the other hand, they are an aggressive thumb-sucker, placing pressure on the roof of their mouth or teeth, the habit may cause problems with tooth alignment and proper mouth growth. Extended thumb or finger sucking affects both the teeth and the shape of the face and may lead to a need for orthodontic treatment in the future if this habit is not stopped at an early age.

If at any time you suspect your child's thumb-sucking may be affecting their oral health, please give us a call or bring them in for a visit.

How Can I Help My Child Quit Thumb-Sucking?

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

  1. Always be supportive and positive. Instead of punishing your child for thumb-sucking, give praise when the habit is avoided.
  2. Put a band-aid on the thumb or a sock over your child’s hand at night. Let your child know that this is not a punishment, just a way to help them remember to avoid sucking.
  3. Start a progress chart and put a sticker up every day that he/she doesn't suck their thumb. If he makes it through a week without sucking, he/she gets to choose a prize (trip to the zoo, new set of blocks, etc.) When he/her has filled up a whole month reward him/her 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 his/her willingness to break the habit.
  4. If you notice your child sucking when he or she i's anxious, work on alleviating his/her 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 his teeth if he keeps sucking his thumb.

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