Help, My Child Won’t Stop Thumb Sucking!

Thumb sucking is one of the earliest natural instincts that children experience. In fact, it’s a natural reflex that infants exhibit in the womb during development. Thumb sucking helps babies feel calm and secure, but it’s also a tough habit to break. If your toddler, preschooler, or older child still frequently sucks her thumb, you might wonder when and how to intervene. Perhaps you even feel anxious or worried that your child’s ongoing thumb sucking will lead to long-term dental problems.

Don’t worry; we’re here to help. Thumb sucking is a normal habit, but there are many gentle ways to intervene if your child’s thumb sucking persists beyond kindergarten.

Why Do Children Suck Their Thumb?

Thumb sucking begins before birth thanks to the innate human reflex to root and suck. This reflex makes it possible for newborns to breastfeed or bottle feed automatically. Since thumb sucking uses the same instincts as eating, sucking her thumb makes your child feel comforted and secure.

How Do Most Kids Learn to Stop Thumb Sucking?

All children are different. Some stop sucking their thumbs on their own, as young as six months old or between the ages of 2 and 4. Other children continue to suck their thumbs at 5 and 6 years of age, until they grow out of the habit or realize it’s not the social norm.

Experts have varying opinions on when parents should address thumb sucking in older children Some believe it should be stopped before the age of 3. The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, says treatment isn’t necessary until a child continues to suck her thumb after turning 5.

Can Thumb Sucking Cause Tooth Damage?

Thumb sucking doesn’t cause damage immediately. In fact, it isn’t a major concern until your child’s permanent teeth begin growing into her mouth. Thumb sucking can affect the roof of the mouth. It can also impact how permanent teeth align together, which may cause noticeable misalignment issues or incorrect bites.

Though there’s no exact formula, experts agree that the risk of dental problems relating to thumb sucking is influenced by how long and intensely your child remains a thumb sucker. For example, a child who passively holds her thumb in her mouth faces less risk of tooth and jaw problems than a child who vigorously and actively sicks on her thumb.

Tips to Help Your Child Stop Thumb Sucking

If your child is a stubborn thumb sucker who still hasn’t stopped the habit, despite her age, it may be time to intervene. There are many ways to gently and subtly encourage your child to decrease thumb sucking until the habit is eliminated.

Try these tips at home:

  • Create a chart and reward system to track your child’s progress. The less she sucks her thumb, the more rewards she receives. If there’s a certain time of day or night that triggers more aggressive thumb sucking, offer extra incentives during those times.

  • Encourage and praise your child for her efforts to stop thumb sucking.

  • Find alternatives to thumb sucking, such as holding a special blanket, chewing sugar-free gum (for older children), or other positive distractions.

  • Visit your child’s dentist to learn about positive effects of stopping the habit, plus the potential consequences of continuing to thumb suck.

  • Identify thumb sucking triggers and associated underlying issues, then provide comfort in other ways to work through those triggers and make thumb sucking unnecessary.

Start small and use the strategy you believe best fits your child’s personality and intrinsic reward system.

Can You Dentist Help?

When all else fails, turn to your favorite pediatric dentist for help. Some children stop sucking their thumb as soon as the dentist explains its potential risks. Others may need additional dental attention to quit the habit.

Dentists have a few techniques that may help especially stubborn thumb suckers, such as covering the thumbnail with a bitter substance. In rare cases, a dental appliance called a crib can be placed in the roof of the mouth to make it impossible for the thumb to rest comfortably. Weaning a crib isn’t painful, but it does often require an adjustment period since thumb sucking can no longer offer comfort and support.

Dr. Houri and her compassionate team at All Smile Children’s Dentistry are here to help your child overcome thumb sucking in a simple, stress-free way. Give our office a call at (760) 734-4400 to learn more about our services and schedule an appointment. With decades of experience and the unique expertise of a pediatric dentist, Dr. Houri will make your child’s dental health her top priority.

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