The little girl with short hair is sucking finger while looking up in an outside setting

Thumb Sucking: The Good, the Bad, and the Normal

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

If you're reading this article, you're most likely a concerned parent with your child's health at the forefront of your attention and are worried about their thumb sucking. Is thumb sucking bad? Is there a condition called thumb sucking teeth? We're here to walk you through the ins and outs of thumb sucking, when it can become a problem, and how to best help your child.

What’s Normal?

It's totally normal and safe for your child to suck on their thumb, depending on their age and the intensity of their habit. As your child is growing, putting objects and fingers in their mouth is a natural way to explore, integrate, and understand their world. Additionally, some children use thumb sucking as a comfort source, how some may use stuffed animals or a blanket.

According to the American Dental Association, children often stop this behavior on their own between the ages of two and four. They may increase or return to this behavior when stressed, anxious, or to self-soothe when going to bed.

While no condition comes exclusively from thumb sucking, it's important to monitor this habit as it can leads to dental issues down the line if the behavior is severe or continues for too long. Oral problems for your child associated with chronic thumb sucking past a healthy age may include:

When To Stop Thumb Sucking?

Because your child’s health history is unique, there’s no exact time it’s right to encourage stopping this behavior gently. In addition to their age, the right time to intervene is partly determined by the severity of their thumb sucking or how vigorous the behavior is.

Thumb sucking is typically not considered problematic for your child until they are around five years old. At this age, thumb sucking can start to contribute to oral health concerns like a misaligned bite. Still, it may be smart to wean your child off of this habit sooner rather than later so the behavior is less deeply engrained.

If you observe changes to their teeth or bite alignment, it’s your best bet to schedule a visit with your child’s dental professional for expert insight. Luckily, there are powerful choices you can make on your own to help your child grow out of this behavior or develop healthier alternatives.

How To Help Your Child Stop Thumb Sucking

When it comes to guiding your child’s behavior, reinforcing healthy behaviors may be the healthier and more effective option than punishing unhealthy behaviors. Part of the reasoning for this is explained by the fact that stress and shame may contribute to an increase in thumb-sucking behavior, making punishment less attractive.

You can strengthen healthy behaviors, like using a stuffed animal instead of thumb sucking, by reinforcing them. This can be accomplished either by removing something negative (like letting them stay up past their bedtime on the weekend) or adding something positive (like rewarding them with a healthy snack).

As anyone who’s ever had a bad habit may realize, thumb sucking can become habitual, and your child may not even realize that they’re doing it. Discouraging them with reminders can be helpful to draw their attention before they engage in the habit.

Steps for Discouraging

Steps to help your child avoid sucking their thumb may include:

  • Replace their coping mechanism for stress with a healthy alternative, like holding a blanket, stuffed animal, or favorite toy.
  • Create a chart to track their behavior with stickers and reward them when they reach a certain number of stickers.
  • Avoid situations that may increase your child’s stress, like shaming, criticizing, and admonishing them for thumb sucking.
  • Reinforce healthy behaviors like not sucking their thumb with rewards and praise.
  • Discourage the behavior by putting a bandage on their thumb or covering their hand with a sock at night.
  • If your child is old enough, communicate to them how thumb sucking can negatively affect their oral health.
  • Help your child reduce or manage their discomfort and stress.

Helpful tip: If you’re having trouble encouraging healthy changes on your own, it’s a smart bet to consult your dental professional for their expert insight. They may recommend using a bitter medication, thumb sucking guard, or a dental appliance (in rare cases) to discourage thumb sucking.

When it comes to helping your child, it’s vital to increase your knowledge of what’s effective and harmful to change their behavior. You’ve made a great first step by reading this article and have the perfect opportunity to help them with reinforcement and stress management.

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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