Thumb and Finger Sucking

Share on:

Does your child suck their thumb or finger? 
Thumb and finger sucking is a natural reflex that begins as early as in the womb. It is normal for young children to suck on thumbs, fingers and pacifiers as it provides a sense of security, helps them to relax and induces sleep. Most children stop sucking their thumbs between 2 and 4 years of age and any negative effects on the teeth usually spontaneously resolve without treatment if the habit is stopped early enough.

Will thumb sucking cause my child to have dental problems?

If a sucking habit continues after the permanent teeth arrive it can interfere with the normal growth of the jaws, teeth and roof of the mouth resulting in crowded or protruded teeth and misaligned jaws.  Pacifiers affect the teeth in essentially the same manner, but it is an easier habit to break.

Children who suck their thumb can also have speech issues especially with ‘s’ and ‘th’ sounds, and treatment by speech therapy is invariably unsuccessful while the habit continues.

Brisbane orthodontist, Dr Tony Shields, comments:

“Not all misaligned teeth are caused by thumb and digit sucking alone. The habit however can significantly worsen an underlying problem making it very difficult, if not impossible to treat while the habit persists. If the habit ceases by age 7 or 8, virtually all the harmful effects of the digit sucking should spontaneously improve. Therefore it is imperative to control this problem by this age as the permanent front teeth have started to come through.”

Once a child becomes school age, persistent thumb sucking habits usually reduce to night-time only due to the effect of peer pressure. Please speak with your Medland dentist or hygienist if you are concerned about your child’s sucking habit.

How do I help my child stop thumb sucking?

Every child is different and you have to find their ‘currency’ to motivate them to quit the habit! Positive reinforcement with lots of encouragement and praise is the best way to help your child stop sucking their thumb. Reward charts of stickers can be a good incentive, gradually increasing the time without thumb sucking required to earn a sticker. There can be prizes or reward outings as incentive to complete a certain period without the habit.

1. Identify the trigger

Because the sucking habit is a security mechanism it is also useful to focus on correcting the cause of stress or anxiety and provide a source of comfort and reassurance. Other children suck their thumb when cuddling a particular pillow or blanket, and the habit can be disrupted by removing the pillow or blanket, making it easier to stop thumb sucking.

2. Cessation strategies:

Some other tips include bandaids and paint-on reminders on thumbs as well as socks, puppets or gloves to wear during the night. Additionally there are thumb and finger guards available that when worn prevent the child from making a seal around the thumb or finger so they literally can’t suck their thumb. Without the satisfying sensation of sucking the habit’s appeal is quickly lost. The children can have input by choosing the colour of the guard, glove or puppet – making it a fun activity.

For older children helping them to make the decision, and take responsibility to stop the thumb or digit sucking habit is key to achieving the end goal. A referral to an orthodontist may be necessary and in some cases a fixed orthodontic appliance can be used to discourage the sucking habit. The orthodontist can also monitor the developing teeth and advise any management that may be appropriate.

It’s important to keep in mind that excessive pressure to stop sucking their thumb and negative reinforcement with scolding, ridiculing and nagging can do more harm than good and make the habit even more difficult to break. On the other hand peer pressure from school mates, although upsetting, can trigger children to break the habit or at least reduce it to night only.

We’re here to help

Your Medland dentist or hygienist is more than happy to discuss with you and your child the potentially negative long term effects of not stopping a thumb sucking, as well as strategies to cease the habit for the New Year!