A toddler playing and laying down on a rug while sucking their thumb

Helping Your Child Break A Thumb Sucking Habit

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Whether it's smoking, a job, or candy –, quitting a habit is challenging. The same is true for your child and getting them to quit sucking their thumb. It's a very natural impulse that can start in the womb, then to breastfeeding, and onto bottles. Most toddlers will stop on their own between the ages of two and four years old. But not all of them. Some oral and social issues can arise if mom and/or dad don't help their child leave their thumb-sucking days behind them. But you can do it. And the tips below are there to help you with that transition.

Why Your Child Should Stop Sucking Their Thumb

When your child sucks their thumb, it's driven by instinct. It provides them security, comfort, and even happiness. It soothes, relieves anxiety, and helps them drift off to sleep. Thumb sucking is actually a pretty powerful tool nature has given us. Unfortunately, it can lead to some issues that can impact your child in a variety of ways:

  • Thumb-sucking can affect proper mouth growth, teeth alignment, and changes to the roof of the mouth.
  • The American Dental Association (ADA) warns a child to stop sucking their thumb by 4. If they don't, the lower and upper teeth could become altered so that they don't connect even when your jaw is closed. This is known as "open bite."
  • An open bite may require an oral appliance in the upper arch and palate. This will dissuade thumb-sucking and help normal lip movement close the gap and return the alignment to normal.
  • Should the thumb-sucking stop before adult teeth come in, the bite can correct itself. However, intense sucking with baby teeth can have long-term adverse effects due to an open bite, notes the Journal of Oral Health and Craniofacial Science:
    • A lisp or another type of speech impediment
    • How they chew
    • How they swallow
    • The position of your tongue resting
    • Irregular wear on your other teeth from abnormal pressure on them
  • Unfortunately, some teasing and social discomfort are possible among their peers and siblings as well.

What to Do if Your Child is Sucking Their Thumb

Now you know why your child should stop sucking their thumb. Now the question — how? If you're quitting smoking, you might try nicotine patches or gum. If you're quitting donuts, you might opt for fruit or nuts. The point is, you have options when it comes to breaking your child's thumb-sucking habit. There's no single remedy for everyone. Each child is unique, so you may have to experiment with what works best for them. Here are some useful tips, some from the ADA, on what you could do:

  • Talk to them:
    • The more they know about how sucking their thumb is bad for them, the more likely they'll be willing to stop.
  • Distraction:
    • Keep them busy during the day with arts, crafts, games, and engaging activities that will occupy their hands and their minds.
  • Positive reinforcement:
    • Encouragement and praise when they don't suck their thumb go a long way in the eyes of a toddler.
  • Keep it calm:
    • Many kids suck their thumb as a soothing mechanism when they're anxious or insecure. Create a calming and comfortable environment for them so they won't need to suck their thumb.
  • Make a deal:
    • One of the most time-honored strategic parental tactics — reward them when they're good. So when your child doesn't suck their thumb, you graciously give them a little prize.
  • Wearables:
    • At night, try a glove, bandage, or thumb-sucking guard to prevent your child from sucking and finding the familiar comfort they desire.
  • Call a professional:
    • Let your dentist do the persuading for you. They can explain to your child the detailed negative effects thumb-sucking can have, as well as give you other quitting tips to try.

It may not be easy to get your little one to quit sucking their thumb. And it may take a village. But when they do, spoil your child and show how proud you are of them. Their healthy smile and oral care are worth it.

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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