thumb suckingThumb sucking is normal behavior for infants, but sometimes it continues through into childhood. Thumb sucking becomes a problem if it continues after teething and especially after permanent teeth start to come through. Most children stop sucking at some point between two and four years. If your four-year-old is still sucking or if you think your child has problems with their primary (milk) teeth, then you may want to take steps to discourage thumb sucking.

The consequences of prolonged thumb sucking can include misalignment of permanent teeth and skeletal changes to the jaw, often resulting in an ‘open’ bite (the upper and lower front teeth do not touch). This may aggravate existing congenital problems such as an under or overbite. Also, children who are still sucking their thumbs may experience social isolation or teasing.

However, infants should not be discouraged from sucking, although parents often choose to offer a pacifier instead. In most cases, older children will rapidly realize the habit has ceased to be acceptable and stop (this may be harder for children with some forms of learning disabilities). If your child is three or four and still sucking, it is probably time to intervene before the permanent teeth start to come in.

Here are some good suggestions:

  1. Praise your child for not sucking: Never punish them for sucking. Sucking is often triggered by anxiety, so punishments can actually make the habit worse.
  2. Establish why your child may be continuing to suck: Insecurity can often cause thumb sucking to continue or intensify. If your child was stopping and then starts again when they start school this can indicate issues at school – possibly separation anxiety or even bullying. Investigating the cause of the habit can help both your child’s teeth and their overall health.
  3. Track the child’s progress on a chart and offer rewards for increasing periods without being caught sucking: Carefully watch the child – some children may simply stop sucking their thumbs when they can be caught at it but continue at night.
  4. Talk to the child, or have the dentist talk to the child about the consequences of thumb sucking: At four or five your child should be mature enough to recognize consequences and explaining to them that they will end up with crooked teeth may be enough of an incentive. In some cases, showing them braces may give the child incentive to stop. Explaining realistic consequences is more effective than being a disciplinarian and telling the kid to stop “Because I said so.”
  5. If needed, especially at night, take steps to make the offending thumb harder to suck: A bandaid, a sock over the affected hand or a bitter tasting substance rubbed on the thumb can all provide solid discouragement, although positive methods should always be used in concert. This can be particularly helpful if your child is sucking in their sleep. In rare instances the dentist may prescribe a dental appliance worn at night to physically prevent sucking.

As a final note, involve the child in the process. Make it clear to them that stopping is beneficial and work with them on the best way to help them quit. Again, thumb sucking is normal behavior for infants and many preschoolers and should only be discouraged if it extends further into childhood or is becoming an actual problem. Providing a pacifier to infants and toddlers can help them quit the habit early as the pacifier can be taken away. If tooth changes start to happen, then you will need to talk to your child’s dentist about the best way to keep them from worsening and treat any issues that occur.

If your child is having a difficult time breaking the thumb sucking habit, Pediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics of Virginia can help.  During your child’s next visit, ask a member of our team for guidance. We want your child to feel safe and comfortable while working toward a healthier, positive habit.  To schedule an appointment with one of our pediatric dentists, contact us today at (804) 739-0963 or use our convenient online scheduling tool.