Help Your Child Quit Thumb Sucking

Sucking on a thumb, finger or even a pacifier is considered normal behaviour for infants and young children. Sometimes, the habit of thumb sucking occurs before a baby is born, as seen in the womb, when the baby is developing. Thumb sucking is a natural reflex that gives a baby comfort and security, and is a coping mechanism used by anxious toddlers. However, this soothing, sleep-inducing habit can turn into a problem later on in a child’s life.

When should thumb sucking stop?

It can be worrying to see your child still sucking their thumb when they’re already walking, talking and demanding pricey toys in the toys’ isle of the supermarket. Ideally, thumb-sucking should be discouraged soon after your child has turned four. Continued sucking could start posing problems for your child’s jaw and teeth development. Passive thumb sucking, which involves the thumb merely resting in the mouth, has a greater likelihood of being stopped; whereas, vigorous thumb sucking can be much harder to discourage.

Oral problems caused by thumb sucking

If the habit of thumb sucking continues past the age of four, changes in a child’s mouth, jaw and teeth may occur. This is caused by the sucking motion and the pressure applied by the thumb. Furthermore, the child’s teeth will begin to stick out, resulting in the top and bottom front teeth being unable to touch due to the open space being formed between the teeth at the top and bottom of the mouth. These changes will affect the alignment of the child’s permanent teeth.

Other problems caused by prolonged thumb sucking:

  1. Having an overbite;
  2. Difficulty pronouncing words due to misaligned teeth;
  3. A possibility of developing a lisp;
  4. Having a misaligned jaw;
  5. Changes to the soft tissue in the roof of the mouth

How do I help my child break the habit of thumb sucking?

As children grow older and find better coping mechanisms, they may decide to wean off the thumb sucking all by themselves. Where the thumb sucking doesn’t seem to be stopping and is beginning to cause dental issues, it may be best for you, the parent, to step in. These tips can be helpful in encouraging your child to stop with thumb sucking:

  1. Praise your child for not sucking their thumb

Enforcing positive reinforcement techniques is generally more effective than reprimanding and scolding your child, as this may just push the child into sucking their thumb in defence of the habit. Offering praises instead, may encourage your child to want to stop.

  1. Try to limit your child’s thumb sucking

Explain that thumb sucking is only something that can be done during sleep time. The child will get used to not sucking her thumb during the day and will eventually stop at night as well. 

  1. Kindly remind the child that they are sucking their thumb in order to make them aware of the action

Ask the child if they realise that they are sucking their thumb. If the answer is no- offer the child something else to soothe them, like a blanket or a toy. The more aware the child becomes, the more they may decide to turn to something else instead (like the blanket or toy).

  1. Reward the child for not sucking their thumb

A chart and reward system is a good way to encourage your child not to suck their thumb. Offer an incentive like a star or sticker to be added to the chart each time the child doesn’t suck their thumb when they usually would.

  1. Where anxiety is the trigger of the thumb sucking- focus on ways to ease the anxiety

Often a child will suck their thumb as a means of seeking comfort when they are feeling anxious. Find out which situations cause the anxiety and offer the child a hug or a kiss whenever those situations occur, to show the child that you understand and that the situation isn’t so bad after all. 

  1. Help your child understand that they are growing up, and won’t need to suck her thumb anymore

Point out that your child’s favourite cartoon character or superhero doesn’t engage in thumb sucking. Your child may want to emulate the character or superhero and refrain from sucking their thumb.

  1. Let the dentist explain to your child why thumb sucking is not good for the teeth

Perhaps having a dentist speak to your child about how their teeth will benefit if they chose to give up the habit, could be helpful. Your child may just be persuaded to find a new habit that isn’t detrimental to their teeth.

If you’re worried about your child’s habit of thumb sucking that just won’t go away, we at Trembath Dental are here to help. As a family-friendly practice, we understand how important it is to you that your child maintains healthier habits. Dr Paul Trembath will gladly assist you with that- so give us a call and let us help you!