Thumb-sucking is normal in babies and small children.  It’s a natural urge many babies have, a way to soothe themselves, and helps them fall asleep. Other times, young children will suck their thumb as a way to comfort themselves when they feel hungry, afraid, restless, tired, or even bored. However, many parents wonder if thumb-sucking can impact a child’s oral health over the long run, and what they can do to insure their child’s dental health is protected.

I am unlike other dental professionals, in that I believe if a child needs his/her thumb for self-soothing, then they should have it.  It is a lot more difficult to “fix” someone psychologically than it is to fix the teeth – HOWEVER, with that being said, you must be prepared to spend $5,000-$10,000 on braces if you want the teeth aligned and straightened, once the habit finally stops after they have adult teeth in their mouth.  In order for that to happen, your child has to WANT to stop, otherwise the habit will continue, despite all of your efforts.

Below are “by the book” recommendations on why thumb-sucking should be discontinued at a young age and suggestions on how to encourage your child to discontinue the habit.  As I always say, children are not black and white and sometimes it isn’t so simple; one reason to see a pediatric dentist to help your child through overcoming thumb-sucking in a creative and positive way.

The possible impact of thumb-sucking

According to the American Dental Association, after permanent teeth come in, thumb and/or finger sucking may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth. It can also cause changes in the roof of the mouth, causing it to be high arched and/or constricted. This also applies to pacifiers and other objects that a baby may suck on as a way to soothe themselves. Children usually stop sucking their thumb between the ages of 3 and 6, so there typically is little to worry about regarding a long-term dental impact. However, children who suck their thumbs often over the age of 6, when more adult teeth start coming in, are at risk for dental or speech problems.

Potential dental issues that can arise from thumb-sucking

Thumb-sucking that goes on after the eruption of the permanent teeth can cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth, as well as tooth alignment. While many of the misalignment issues will correct themselves when the sucking stops (including teeth pushed outward or inward), long term habits may require orthodontic intervention to correct. As mentioned before, it can also cause speech issues such as lisping, where a child is unable to pronounce their Ds or Ts, or they may form a habit of thrusting their tongue out when they speak.  Again, most of these concerns are self-limiting (or take care of themselves) when the sucking discontinues.

How to wean a child off thumb-sucking

While most parents might feel that a pacifier is a good replacement for thumb-sucking, the possible long-term impact is the same, and the same guidelines should be followed regarding that age at which a child should stop. Breaking a child of thumb-sucking or their dependence on a pacifier can prove challenging, and many parents struggle with how best to approach a child who won’t stop sucking their thumb or using a pacifier. A pediatric dentist can guide parents on how to assist their child with this problem.  The ADA offers the following tips for how to break the thumb-sucking habit:

  • Praise children for not sucking, instead of scolding them when they are.
  • Focus on correcting the cause of the anxiety causing the action and provide comfort to your child, if they are emotionally old enough to understand.
  • For an older child, involve him or her in choosing the method of stopping.
  • Your dentist can explain to your child what could happen to their teeth if they do not stop sucking and show them pictures, so they have a visual.
  • Remind the child of their habit by bandaging the thumb or putting a sock on the hand at night. (I personally like the thumb-buster that can be purchased on Amazon.)

Your dentist or pediatrician may prescribe a bitter medication to coat the thumb or the use of a mouth appliance.

Keep in mind that dental issues impact children’s health and overall well-being, so being diligent in monitoring your child’s thumb-sucking habit is a good idea to insure less of a need for orthodontics and speech therapy in the future.  The goal is for them to tell you when they are ready to discontinue the habit, and that is when we have the most success.  So plant that seed early and set some goals with your child – timelines are great (one example, “I am going to stop sucking my thumb before my 5th birthday”) and then it builds their self-esteem when they decide to stop and actually do it.  Just like you, they can do anything they put their mind to.