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Does Your Child Suck His or Her Thumb?

By Jill Hamilton on January 17, 2013 in Kid's Health


If your child is thumb-sucking, pay attention to changes in the mouth and the frequency of the thumb

Does your child suck his or her thumb? It’s not uncommon.

According to Stanford Children’s Health, almost 90 percent of newborns “show some form of hand sucking by two hours after birth.” It’s a natural reflex for young kids and can even help them feel safe or handle stress. Yet oral health issues can arise once teeth begin to form and protrude from the gums. 

Prolonged thumb sucking can lead to a mouth–or jaw–full of problems down the road, and there aren’t always easy ways to stop thumb sucking.

Why is sucking on a thumb an issue?

The innocent behavior becomes an issue because of the constant pressure pushing on the jaw, mouth, and gums. This can change the way their mouths develop. It can influence the formation of the palate and the alignment of teeth. Thumb sucking can cause oral health problems like an overbite. This can lead to issues pronouncing certain words, and the thumb itself may even become sore or infected.

As your child grows older and begins exploring the world more, they are exposed to more germs. Germs on the hands quickly become germs in the mouth when thumb sucking is a regular occurrence.

When does thumb sucking become an issue?

What was once a natural habit starts to become a problem as your child passes the age of four. Many children naturally abandon thumb sucking behavior by this point in life. Some may need encouragement to stop before the routine causes problems. Because each kid is different, it’s important to pay attention to changes in the mouth and the frequency of the thumb-sucking habit.

What are some easy ways to stop thumb sucking?

  • Build positive habits — Just like how potty training involves shifting from diapers to the toilet, thumb sucking should be slowly weaned out. This means using positive reinforcement, praise, and setting clear expectations. Don’t be afraid to make it fun or develop a rewards-based system—this also works for brushing teeth—that encourages the absence of thumb sucking.
  • Don’t go cold turkey — Learning is a process, and it’s important for your child to learn how to stop a harmful behavior. Limit the amount of time that you allow your child suck his or her thumb, progressively reducing the time until it’s done. If you must, restrict thumb sucking to specific times or places, like at home and not in public.
  • Work together — Help your child be aware of thumb sucking and drive the desire to want to change it. Many kids do it unconsciously. Help them create a path to success. There’s no need for thumb guards or nasty-tasting topical stuff if you can foster a positive learning experience.
  • Eliminate stress — Remember, thumb sucking is also a coping technique that helps children feel calm and comfortable. Recurrence of the behavior or an inability to make progress could be an indication of stressors. Work to identify and reduce or eliminate any such triggers.
  • Talk to your dentist — The people trained to take care of your oral health will certainly have ideas and suggestions on how to curb thumb-sucking tendencies.

Keep in mind that your child is his or her own person. They will grow out of the need for thumb sucking when they feel ready. As a parent, they’ll need your help to identify when it’s time to let go of certain behaviors and develop others.

Be patient as you help them continue to learn and grow.

For more oral health tips, visit our blog. | To find a dentist, check out our handy search tool.

*Updated 2019