The Tooth Doc’s Top Tips for Stopping a Child’s Thumb-Sucking Habits

How to gently stop your child's thumb sucking habit

Is thumb-sucking all that bad?

If you’re reading this, your child probably still sucks their thumb. And maybe you’re concerned because they’re developing pacifier teeth or you’re aware of how they may fare socially, especially as they start school.

We are born with a strong, healthy sucking reflex. Babies need this to survive. And sucking to self-soothe, either on a pacifier or a thumb, is not only normal and common in babies, it’s harmless and helpful. Isn’t it nice that your little one can calm themselves down and fall asleep easier on their own? 

Most children outgrow this habit by three or four years of age without a problem. But what if your child’s adult teeth are coming in soon and you’re concerned about them developing what dentists call “pacifier teeth”? At this point, you might be thinking, Why does my child still suck their thumb? Is it harmful? How can I help them transition away from this habit? Read on to find out.

Why Your Older Child May Still Suck Their Thumb

It’s common for babies to suck their thumb or fingers, and it’s common for preschoolers and kindergarteners to still have this habit as well. Do not despair. Your child sucks their thumb as a coping mechanism, a way to soothe themself. They’ve learned to do it to calm down, fall asleep at bedtime, or ease their anxiety in stressful situations. Some kids just do it when they’re bored or because it has become muscle memory. It’s comfortable, familiar, and soothing.

If your child is still an adamant thumbsucker, don’t worry You haven’t done anything wrong. Studies even link a genetic component to thumb-sucking, especially in kids who continue to do it into adolescence. You will find that it tends to run in families. 

While most kids naturally learn to stop for social reasons, the biggest concern with continued thumb-sucking is how it can affect their adult teeth and the structure of their growing mouths.

Thumb-sucking can cause orthodontic issues later on.

If your child still sucks their thumb when their adult teeth come in, it can cause significant orthodontic issues. Some studies show that orthodontic issues can arise from thumb-sucking, even if the child stops before their permanent teeth come in. 

The persistent pressure of the thumb against the front palate can shape and determine how their adult teeth come in and can actually change the positioning of the teeth and the growth pattern of the jaw and palette. Dentists tend to notice the following dental and structural problems in thumb suckers:

  • Alignment issues
  • High, narrow palette 
  • Overbite due to upper teeth being pushed forward 
  • Crowding and malocclusion
  • Open bite 

However, it doesn’t just depend on if they suck their thumb or not that puts them at risk for these problems; it’s also how they suck their thumb. Does your child tend to gently hold her thumb in her mouth, or are they more of an aggressive thumb sucker? Do they suck their thumb frequently throughout the day or only as they’re falling asleep at night? 

All of these things come into play as far as how likely and how severe the orthodontic repercussions from thumb-sucking may be.

How can I gently help my child stop sucking their thumb?

Before attempting to stop thumb-sucking cold turkey, ask yourself these questions. When does your child suck their thumb? Do they do it mainly in bed, only around family, or all the time? Start by encouraging your little one to limit their thumb-sucking to certain situations, like going to bed

Think about the reason your child sucks their thumb. The goal of this is to provide them with other age-appropriate coping skills. It’s not a bad idea to offer extra stories, cuddles, or a stuffed animal in replacement.

If your child sucks their thumb to self-soothe when upset, work on talking them through their feelings. Encourage them to communicate how they feel to you.

The whole goal of breaking a thumb-sucking habit is to stay patiently, walk alongside them, and make it as positive of a transition as possible. Punishments and belittling won’t be effective. If anything, that can deter them and slow the whole process down.

Reward systems can work.

Reward systems can take the pressure off and make the experience a little better for everyone. You could offer a sticker every day your child goes without sucking their thumb or a toy for going a week without sucking their thumb at night.

Involve them as much as possible in this reward system, especially if they’re a little older. Let them choose how they want to go about it and make sure they’re on board. The last thing you want to do is find yourself in a power struggle. If this is the case, start by ignoring the behavior. That may be all that’s needed and you may never have to try any of the other ideas. 

Your Tooth Doc dentist can help address thumb-sucking.

If you find you’ve exhausted your resources and you’re not sure what else to try, talk to your dentist. The dentists at The Tooth Doc can recommend a simple habit reminder appliance that is custom-made to help kids break their persistent thumb-sucking habit. If you’re looking for a dentist in Northeast Omaha who can offer more advice on how to stop your child’s thumb-sucking, reach out to us. We’re here to help!