How to Stop Thumb Sucking Habit

Thumb sucking is a non-nutritive sucking habit that can begin before birth. This is normal behavior that infants and toddlers use as a comfort method. Non-nutritive sucking is a sucking habit that is not related to feeding. It can lead to problems, most commonly with the teeth and the thumb, especially if it continues.

Key takeaways:
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    Thumb sucking is a non-nutritive sucking habit that is normal behavior infants and toddlers use as a comfort method.
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    Children generally stop thumb-sucking between 2 and 4 years old.
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    Thumb sucking can harm the teeth and the soft tissues of the mouth and the thumb.
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    Thumb sucking can affect how teeth come through the gums as well as the shape of the roof of the mouth.
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    It can take some time to break the habit, especially if it has been ongoing.

When does thumb-sucking become a problem?

Thumb sucking is a habit many babies have that is not considered a problem in the beginning. It helps babies self-soothe. It also provides oral motor stimulation that helps babies develop. Some babies are seen on ultrasound sucking their thumbs in utero. They may continue to do it into toddlerhood, but many children stop around ages 2-4.

If thumb sucking continues into toddlerhood or preschool age, problems can occur. Thumb sucking can harm the teeth and the soft tissues of the mouth and thumbs.

Problems caused by thumb sucking

When thumb sucking continues beyond ages 4-5, children can develop problems. However, problems may be seen earlier when teeth start coming in. Dental problems can be less concerning with baby teeth, but it is important to remember that baby teeth lead the way for adult teeth. Also, if the habit does not stop before permanent teeth begin to come in, it will affect how they erupt through the gums.

Problems can include:

  • Forward protruding front teeth or overbite - when upper front teeth overlap the bottom teeth.
  • Overjet - when upper teeth protrude outward beyond bottom teeth.
  • Crossbite - upper front teeth are inside lower teeth.
  • Sore thumbs.
  • Infections on thumbs or thumbnails.
  • Calluses on thumbs.
  • Blisters.
  • Altered speech.
  • Poor or ineffective swallowing.
  • Being teased.
  • Mental health struggles like anxiety or a hard time coping.

When to stop thumb sucking

Thumb sucking is not a problem until your child’s teeth start coming in. Thumb sucking can affect how teeth come through the gums as well as the shape of the roof of the mouth. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast timeline for this. Some infants begin teething as early as 4 months old and others do not start until after 12 months. The average age is around 6 months old.

The risk of dental problems increases the longer your child sucks their thumb. It also goes up based on how frequently and how hard they do it. Some children tend to only suck their thumb when they need comfort, go to sleep, or in other situations. Other children continuously suck their thumbs.

Experts recommend addressing this by age 3 if your child has not stopped. However, if your child continues to suck their thumb, you may find professional interventions may not be available until age 5. The American Academy of Pediatrics states treatment is not necessary before age 5.

How to stop thumb sucking

If you want to help your child stop sucking their thumb, you can try some options on your own. You can work to break the habit and may not need to worry about needing professional help. It can take some time to break the habit, especially if it has been ongoing.

Methods to break the habit include:

Covering your child’s hands. You can use socks or gloves to cover their hand and make their thumb less appealing. You can also buy special mittens or braces that cover the thumb, preventing them from sucking their thumbs.

Ignore the habit. Many children will stop on their own without intervention. This can be true as children get older and are around other children. They do not want to be teased.

Positive feedback or comments when your child does not suck their thumb can feel very rewarding. This can encourage them to stop. Other rewards like sticker charts can be motivating too.

Gently reminding your child not to suck their thumb can be helpful, though it can be challenging for you at times. This is not a time to yell, punish, or criticize your child.

Busy hands are a great distraction. Children who tend to suck their thumb when bored or sitting still may simply need something to occupy their minds and their hands. Distracting them with fun hobbies, crafts, or other things they enjoy can be a wonderful way to keep them from sucking their thumb. This is also a fantastic way to help them learn and develop their mind.

Determine the triggers. If your child has specific things that cause him or her to start sucking their thumb, those are the things you want to address. Stress can be a trigger and your child might use thumb sucking as a comfort. Begin by replacing the negative habit (thumb sucking) with a manageable positive habit like hugs, either from you or a stuffed animal. You might also try singing, dancing, or anything else that makes your child happy, calm, or relaxed.

When to get help

If you are still concerned about your child’s thumb sucking, it’s never a bad idea to get a professional opinion. If you notice any problems with your child’s teeth or the roof of their mouth, it is important to have them evaluated.

Talk to your dentist about your concerns. Your pediatrician or healthcare provider may also be able to provide some helpful information. If your child is older and adult teeth have come in, you may need to have them evaluated by an orthodontist.

Can I prevent thumb-sucking?

While thumb sucking is considered normal in infants and may only become a concern as children age, some parents want to prevent it. If a child never starts, the habit doesn’t need to be broken. If this is something you would like to consider, you can think about other alternatives.

Some experts suggest providing a pacifier to infants is a better alternative.

Pacifiers are softer and do not cause damage to the teeth.

Most pacifiers are designed to fit the shape of the mouth and do not cause deformity.

Pacifiers can be cleaned when needed.

Breaking the pacifier habit could be easier than thumb-sucking. You can take it away.

Stopping your baby from putting their thumb in their mouth may prevent the habit from starting.

Adults can struggle too

Kids aren’t the only ones fighting with thumb-sucking. Teens and adults have reported using thumb sucking as a comfort measure for stress and anxiety, much like smaller children. However, most are reluctant to admit it, so reliable information is limited.

This, like other regressive responses, can be the result of unresolved trauma or other stressors. Habit-breaking can be effective for these age groups as well. Though, it may require more work. Treating the underlying trauma or stressors is essential. The problem won’t go away until it’s addressed and treated.

Thumb sucking is a common habit for infants and toddlers. Often beginning before birth, it can continue for the first few years of childhood. Infants use thumb-sucking to soothe and calm themselves. As children age, it can become a problem, causing the mouth and teeth to become malformed. The longer this habit continues, the more problems can develop. It is possible to stop thumb-sucking when children are young or with professional help if needed.