Thumb Sucking 101

baby sucking thumbGot a thumb sucker in your house? Don’t worry – you are far from alone. An average of 3 out of 4 children suck their thumbs or other fingers. This number is high, but not surprising – the act of sucking digits is, in fact, a natural reflex that your baby has been practicing since they were in the womb! There are a lot of misconceptions out there about the dental problems thumb sucking can cause – let’s put those to rest.

Like pacifiers, thumb sucking is a habit used by children to calm and sooth themselves. Children may “self-pacify” for a number of different reasons; anxiety, fear, hunger, and even fatigue. Most often, children are not even aware that they’re doing it. However, not all thumb sucking is created equal.

Should we worry about the effects of thumb sucking on our children’s teeth and oral development?

Of course, there is no simple answer, so of course we have to say yes and no. Thumb sucking can cause problems that range from chapped skin, calluses, nail infection, and speech problems to more serious issues such as problems with the growth and development of the mouth, roof of the mouth, and misalignment of teeth (malocclusion). In other words, there may be restorative dentistry or braces in your child’s future.

Age and intensity are the two biggest factors in determining whether or not to do something about your child’s habit. According to The American Dental Association (ADA), sucking is not generally an issue until after permanent teeth begin to come in, and most children will stop naturally between the ages of two and four.

The intensity of sucking can however overrule the age factor. If your child is aggressively sucking, problems may even occur with their baby teeth. Should you discover calluses on the fingers they suck, this may indicate that they are sucking too intensely. On the flipside, if your child is merely resting their thumb gently in their mouth, you probably don’t need to worry.

When & how to curb the habit.

If your child is not vigorously and intensely sucking and is at preschool age or younger, the best thing to do is ignore the habit. However, if your child continues to suck their thumb beyond the age of four, then it’s recommended that you begin working with your child to curb the habit. Most children often feel embarrassed and actually want stop once they’ve begun interacting and socializing with peers.

When to start kicking the habit:

If your child…

• Shows embarrassment or asks for help
• Vigorously sucks – if this is the case, it’s recommended to curb the habit earlier
• Develops calluses, chapped/raw skin, or infections
• Begins to develop speech problems (such as lisping, having trouble pronouncing T’s and D’s, or thrusts their tongue when they talk)
• Begins to show developmental issues in the growth of their mouth
• Has teeth that are erupting and are clearly misaligned

It’s very important to keep in mind why children suck their thumbs; for comfort and security. Punishment, shaming, and constant pressure to break the habit can actually do more harmful than helpful. No one knows your child better than you do – have you noticed that they only suck their thumb in certain situations or when they’re feeling a certain way? Before you begin, try to identify and pinpoint a pattern in their thumb sucking behavior and come up with a plan to swap out one habit for another.

Here are some tips:

• Do they most often suck their thumb when they’re fatigued? Try increasing the duration of their nap or putting them to bed earlier.
• When they’re hungry? Try carrying a bag of snacks with you and let them munch on something instead of sucking their thumb.
• Boredom or fidgety? Try giving them a squishy stress ball to play with to keep their hands busy.
• Anxious? Try creating a quiet space where they can feel safe and comfortable talking about their anxieties.
• Unless your child is developing skin irritations, infections, or calluses, gloves and band aids to deter sucking can be perceived as a punishment and is not recommended.
• Stick to positive reinforcement – draw attention to and praise them when they’re not sucking.
• Turn it into a game – create a fun atmosphere around kicking the habit. You and your child can craft a fun calendar together that keeps track of how many days they can go without sucking. For each day they don’t, put a gold star on the calendar. Set small attainable goals and celebrate when your child has reached them!

As with any health concern, if the habit becomes a persistent problem or is interfering with daily life, it is highly recommended that you speak with your trusted health care professional. Oral health is of the upmost importance. If you’re concerned about your child’s thumb sucking habit and its effects on their teeth, give Chesapeake Pediatric Dental Group a call! You can reach us at 410-248-3384 .

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