Thumb sucking is a natural reflex that helps babies thrive. In fact, your child was probably practicing on all of his or her fingers before he or she is born. Thumbsucking or using a pacifier helps babies feel secure and happy. Young children may also thumb suck to soothe themselves and to help in falling asleep. However, as your child gets older, the habit of thumb sucking or the use of a soother can ruin your child’s teeth and overall oral health.
Effects of thumbsucking on your child’s teeth
After your child’s permanent teeth emerge, sucking may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth. It can lead to changes in the roof of the mouth. The intensity of the sucking partly determines whether or not dental problems may result. If your child rests his or her thumb passively in the mouth, your child is less likely to have oral problems than those who vigorously suck on their thumbs. Some aggressive young thumbsuckers may even develop problems with their baby or primary teeth. Some even experience difficulty in speech development.
Pacifiers can affect your child’s teeth essentially the same way as sucking his or her fingers or thumbs, but it is often an easier habit to break.
How long is acceptable?
The best time to discourage thumbsucking is by age four. By this time, prolonged sucking could begin to affect your child’s mouth and developing jaw and teeth, possibly causing permanent teeth to be misaligned. If your child passively sucks his thumb, the habit may be easier to discourage, but vigorous sucking can lead to changes in the palate that affect the permanent bite and are usually more difficult to end without intervention. It is best to talk to your pediatric dentist because they can recommend strategies and treatments to help your child in successfully stopping this habit.
Many children stop sucking their thumbs on their own sometime between ages 2 and 4.
How to help your child stop sucking his or her thumb?
If you are considering trying to get your child to stop sucking his or her thumb, realize that whatever method you choose, it will have the best chance of success if your child also wants to stop. Helping your child to stop thumbsucking may depend upon their age. In older children, talking to your child may be enough, especially if they’ve been teased about the practice by other children. Peer pressure can be a powerful discouragement in kids who are entering preschool or kindergarten. If at any point your child is resistant to giving up their thumb sucking, it’s best to just ignore the behavior. Sometimes, the more attention you pay to it, the more persistent it becomes.
Here are other ways Kidsmile recommends to help your children stop sucking their thumbs:
Notice your child’s thumbsucking triggers
Some children thumb suck when they are bored, tired, anxious, or hungry. If your child appears to suck his or her thumb as a self-soothing strategy during stressful situations, attempt to figure out the root cause of his or her anxiety so you can address it. If your child is thumbsucking at other times, try to engage him or her in an activity that uses both hands, such as drawing or playing catch. But don’t let your child’s thumbsucking habit become a means of getting attention, either positive or negative.
Use positive reinforcement
Engage your child in wanting to stop the habit by praising them when they don’t thumb suck or by letting them track the absence of the behavior with a sticker chart. Giving praise also for not sucking on thumbs
Keep them on track with gentle reminders
If your child absentmindedly thumb sucks, calmly tell them to stop. Be prepared to do this many times. This only works if your child wants help in stopping his or her thumbsucking habit.
Ask your child’s dentist for help
Your child’s dentist can talk to them about his or her thumbsucking habit. It is helpful to let your child know the kind of damage thumbsucking or soothers are causing in his or her smile and teeth.
Try an orthodontic device
There are removable and non-removable orthodontic devices that can be used to disrupt the ability of a child to thumb suck. A pediatric orthodontist can work with you to determine which type is best for your child.
Use thumb shields
There are various types of soft plastic or fabric thumb guards that are available without a prescription if your child is interested in a reminder not to suck his or her thumb. Your child can wear them all the time or during the times they are most likely to thumb suck. You can also cover your child’s thumb at night with a glove, mitten, or sock if they thumb suck in his or her sleep. If your child only sucks their thumb while sleeping, remember that this is not something they can control.
The earlier you are able to help your child discontinue this habit, the better it will be for your child’s overall oral health.