Along with favorite blankets, teddy bears, and nap time, thumb sucking can be one of the most comforting features 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 his or her behavior has the potential to affect oral health.

What is normal thumb-sucking behavior?

Most children begin sucking a 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. The activity 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 Canadian 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 to suck a thumb beyond the preschool years (although studies show that the older a child gets, the lower his chances of continuing).

If your child is still sucking when the 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 the thumb. If he or sucks passively, with a thumb gently resting inside the mouth, the child is less likely to cause damage. If, on the other hand, your son or daughter 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 oral health, please give us a call or bring your youngster 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 this 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 child’s thumb or a sock over the hand at night. Let your youngster know that this is not a punishment, just a way to help him or her remember to avoid sucking.
  3. Start a progress chart and let him put a sticker up every day that your child doesn’t suck a thumb. If your youngster 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 the child has filled up a whole month, provide an even bigger reward (a ball glove or new video game). By then, the habit should be over. Making your child an active participant in treatment will increase his or her 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 child’s teeth if he or she 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.

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American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry BC Dental Association (BCDA) Canadian Dental Association