Along with favorite blankets, teddy bears, and nap time, thumb sucking can be one of the most comforting aspects of childhood. While it’s not necessarily a cause for worry, it is important to pay attention to your child’s habits, since certain behaviors have the potential to affect your child’s oral health. Most children begin sucking their thumb or finger from a very young age, or may even start inside the womb. Sucking is a natural reflex for an infant and it serves as a sense of security and contentment for a young one. It can be very relaxing, which is why many children suck as they fall asleep.
According to the American Dental Association, most children stop thumb sucking on their own between 2 and 4 years old by simply outgrowing it. However, some children continue sucking beyond preschool. If your child is still sucking when his permanent teeth start to erupt, you will want to actively work on breaking the habit. Extended sucking affects both the teeth and jaws including the shape of the face and may lead to a need for orthodontic treatment in the future. The changes to the facial structure associated with thumb sucking can also lead to airway and breathing issues if left untreated.
How can I help my child quit thumb sucking?
- Always be supportive and positive. Instead of punishing your child for thumb sucking, give praise when he doesn’t suck. This will encourage him to stick with it!
- If your child is ready, you can try “reminders” such as a bandage or tape on the finger or thumb or a sock over the hands during sleep. Let him know that this is not a punishment, just a way to help him remember to avoid sucking.
- Use a calendar as a reward chart and let him put a sticker up every day that he doesn’t suck his thumb. If he makes it through a week without sucking, he gets to choose a small prize. When he has filled up a whole month, reward him with something great and by then the habit should be over. Making your child an active participant in the treatment will increase his enthusiasm to break the habit.
- If you notice your child sucking when he’s anxious, work on easing his anxiety rather than focusing on the habit.
- Take note of the times your child tends to suck, such as watching TV or going on long rides in the car and create diversions during these occasions.
- Explain clearly and show examples of what might happen to the teeth if your child continues the thumb or finger sucking.
When should my child stop sucking his thumb?
Thumb sucking is natural and a normal reflex utilized by infants to soothe themselves. They generally lose interest once they develop other coping skills. Ideally, children should stop thumb sucking before the age of 4. Up until the age of 3, children are too young to actively try to get them to stop. See if they will stop on their own with positive reinforcement. Focus only on daytime thumb sucking first. Once your child has stopped daytime sucking, then you can work on nighttime.
What about pacifiers?
Pacifiers are not a substitute for thumb sucking. They, too, can affect the teeth in the same way as sucking fingers and thumbs. However, you can control and modify the pacifier easier than the thumb or finger habit.
Whatever your method, always remember that your child needs your support and understanding during the process of breaking the habit. If your child is emotionally ready and they just can’t stop, make a visit to discuss thumb habit appliance therapy options with Dr. Meggan.
David Decides About Thumbsucking – A Story for Children, a Guide for Parents
by Susan Heitler PHD
How does thumb sucking affect my child’s teeth?
How hard a child actually sucks on their fingers or thumbs will determine whether or not dental problems will result. Some children rest their thumbs passively in their mouths, making them less likely to have problems than those who vigorously suck their thumbs.
My child grinds his teeth when he sleeps.
Parents are often concerned about nighttime grinding of their child’s teeth (bruxism). Most children do grind their teeth and there is no cause for concern. The majority of cases of pediatric bruxism do not require any treatment. If excessive wear of the teeth (attrition) is present, then a mouth guard (night guard) may be indicated. This is rarely suggested for children since their teeth are in transition and the night guard will not fit for long. Dr. Meggan will evaluate your child and if there is any cause for concern, she will inform you.
Will he always grind his teeth?
The good news is most children outgrow bruxism. The grinding lessens between the ages of 6 to 9 years old and children tend to stop grinding between the ages of 9 to 12 years old.