Is Thumb-Sucking Bad for My Child’s Health?

Thumb-sucking is a natural instinct for babies and children. But after a while, the habit could become a problem for their oral health.

If your child is sucking their thumb, you may wonder when they should stop and if you should talk to someone about it. There are some simple ways you can help your child put an end to the habit if it’s affecting their teeth.

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Why Do Kids Suck Their Thumbs?

Sucking is a natural reflex for children. Many children actually begin sucking their thumbs or fingers while they’re in the womb. After they’re born, this continues with sucking their thumbs, fingers, or pacifiers.

Thumb-sucking also can help children self-soothe or provide them comfort. Children might suck their thumb if they’re:

  • Separated from their parents.
  • Tired, and sucking their thumb helps them sleep.
  • Around strangers.
  • In an unfamiliar situation or environment.

When Do Kids Stop Sucking Their Thumbs?

According to the American Dental Association, most children stop sucking their thumbs between 2 and 4 years of age.

But many children continue the habit for longer. According to StatPearls, studies have shown that about 48% of 4-year-olds suck their thumbs. The number remains at 12.1% for children older than 7 and 1.9% for children over 12.

How Does Thumb-Sucking Affect Teeth?

Although thumb-sucking is a common habit for kids, it can cause problems with their oral health. That’s especially true if they continue to suck their thumbs as their permanent teeth come in. But it can even cause problems with their baby teeth.

Potential problems that thumb-sucking can cause include:

  • Misalignment of teeth.
  • Crossbite.
  • Overbite.
  • Increased overjet (upper front teeth protruding forward).
  • Anterior open bite.
  • Changes in the roof of the mouth.

Although dental impacts are most common, thumb-sucking can cause other problems, too. It can affect their speech. If they’re especially aggressive, the suction could affect their thumb or their nail. If they continue to suck their thumb by the time they’re in school, it could cause social issues as well.

How to Stop Thumb-Sucking

Most children stop sucking their thumbs on their own, but some don’t.

The American Dental Association says parents should attempt to discourage thumb-sucking if their kids are still doing it after age 4. But it’s important not to push too hard.

If your child’s thumb-sucking continues, talk to your pediatrician or dentist. They may be able to offer other suggestions or solutions to help your child.

Some ways you can encourage your child to stop sucking their thumb include:

  • Talk to them about their habit, if they’re old enough to understand. Gently explain to them that sucking their thumb isn’t good for them.
  • Don’t get mad at or scold your child when they suck their thumb. Instead, offer positive reinforcement — praise them when they don’t suck their thumb.
  • If your child is sucking their thumb because they’re anxious, find out what’s causing that worry. Then, work to address that problem.
  • Reward them when they don’t suck their thumb in difficult situations.
  • Give them something — a new toy, a stuffed animal, or a blanket — that they can use for comfort instead of sucking their thumb.
  • Bandage your child’s thumb or put a sock over their hand so they can’t suck their thumb at night.
  • Talk to a pediatrician or dentist about other solutions, such as using a mouth guard or applying something bitter-tasting to your child’s thumb to discourage sucking.

Remember: Thumb-sucking is normal, and most children outgrow it on their own. But if you need help, your child’s pediatrician or a pediatric dentist can provide other options.

The Division of Pediatric Dentistry at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh provides dental care to kids of all ages.

Sources

American Dental Association, Thumb Sucking and Pacifier Use. Link

Colgate, Thumb Sucking: The Good, the Bad, and the Normal. Link

Michelle R. Byrd, Elizabeth M. Nelson & Lisa M. Manthey, Practitioner's Guide to Evidence-Based Psychotherapy, Oral-Digital Habits of Childhood: Thumb Sucking. Link

StatPearls, Thumb Sucking. Link

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.