The Potential Risks of Thumb-Sucking and How to Break the Habit

By Danielle Pastula

When you notice your baby putting her thumb in her mouth for the first time, you pause.

“Oh no, should I pull her thumb out?”
“Is this going to become a habit?”
“What am I freaking out about, she’s only a baby! They grow out of this … right?”

Those are probably a few thoughts you’ve had flood in when seeing your baby suck her thumb, or maybe you’re in the camp of, “It’s fine, that’s how they self-soothe.”

No matter your opinions on thumb-sucking during infancy, once your child gets to toddlerhood, you can’t afford to waffle on whether it’s OK for your child to continue thumb-sucking.

The potential harms of thumb-sucking

Non-nutritive thumb-sucking, or sucking that does not relate to providing nutrition to your child through breast or bottle feeding, can have adverse long-term dental and skeletal effects on your child.

According to Dr. Andrew Gooch, DMD of Kids Only Dental Place, some of these effects include increased pressure on the teeth and the bones supporting the teeth, narrowing of the upper jaw, irregular positioning of teeth that can lead to an open bite (where the teeth don’t meet when the mouth is closed), and excessive flaring out of upper front teeth and flaring back of bottom teeth.

While sucking is a normal baby reflex that typically begins around the 29th week of gestation, non-nutritive sucking should be discouraged as soon as possible, but no later than 2 years of age, Dr. Gooch advised.

“We also recommend that parents take their child to the dentist within six months of their first tooth erupting, so they can get a look at the child’s current dental development, evaluate any early thumb sucking effects and help educate parents,” said Dr. Gooch.

Tips for stopping the thumb-sucking habit

So, what do you do if your child is engaging in habitual thumb-sucking?

According to Nguyet N. Beaufait, DMD Med of Millhopper Pediatric Dentistry, there are a variety of techniques to stop thumb-sucking based on the child’s personality, intensity, duration and frequency of the habit.

However, if you’re looking to get started with some simple techniques at home early into your child’s thumb-sucking habit, here are some easy tips to try.

▶ Use a reward system: Whether it’s a sticker chart or a tabbed folder, create a visual praise system and come up with some fun rewards for your child if he meets the benchmarks you’ve set for not sucking his thumb.

▶ Find new ways to comfort: Thumb-sucking is often a comforting activity for children, so try to identify those moments and ask your child why he’s sucking his thumb. Replace that comfort action with another, like hugging a stuffed animal.

▶ Get the right gear: Ask your child’s dentist for recommendations on standard prefabricated thumb guards and customized orthodontic appliances that can help your child break the habit.

The bottom line

“Methods that work best will depend on your child, but no matter what method you use, positive re-enforcement when your child isn’t sucking their thumb is the most beneficial thing you can do through the weaning process,” said Dr. Gooch.

Dr. Beaufait also advised that one of the most crucial factors in putting a stop to a child’s thumb sucking habit is that everyone in the household and child’s inner circle including parents, grandparents, siblings and/or caregivers needs to be “on the same page” to help the child stop this habit.

“Know that it’s never too late to stop the thumb-sucking habit,” said Dr. Beaufait