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Thumb-sucking is a natural reflex for children. Sucking on thumbs, fingers, pacifiers or other objects may make babies feel secure and happy and help them learn about their world. Young children may also suck to soothe themselves andthumb help them fall asleep. However, after the permanent teeth come in, sucking may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth. It can also cause changes in the roof of the mouth. Pacifiers can affect the teeth essentially the same ways as sucking fingers and thumbs, but it is often an easier habit to break. The intensity of the sucking is a factor that determines whether or not dental problems may result. If children rest their thumbs passively in their mouths, they are less likely to have difficulty than those who vigorously suck their thumbs. Some aggressive thumb-suckers may develop problems with their baby (primary) teeth. (A callus on the thumb is one sign of intense sucking.)

Prolonged thumb-sucking may cause the teeth to become improperly aligned (malocclusion) or push the teeth outward. This usually corrects itself when the child stops thumb-sucking. But the longer thumb-sucking continues, the more likely it is that orthodontic treatment will be needed.

Speech problems caused by thumb-sucking can include not being able to say T’s and D’s, lisping, and thrusting out the tongue when talking.

Children usually stop sucking between the ages of two and four years old, or by the time the permanent front teeth are ready to erupt. If you notice changes in your child’s primary teeth, or are concerned about your child’s thumb-sucking consult your dentist.

Tips for helping your child stop thumb sucking:

  • Offering praise, positive attention, and rewards for not thumb-sucking may help your child break the habit. For example, put stickers on a calendar each day that your child doesn’t suck his or her thumb. After an agreed-upon number of days, have a celebration for your child.
  • Children often suck their thumbs when feeling insecure or needing comfort. Focus on correcting the cause of the anxiety and provide comfort to your child.
  • For an older child, involve him or her in choosing the method of stopping.
  • Your dentist can offer encouragement to your child and explain what could happen to their teeth if they do not stop sucking.
  • If the above tips don’t work, remind the child of their habit by bandaging the thumb or putting a sock on the hand at night. Your dentist or pediatrician may prescribe a bitter medication to coat the thumb or the use of a mouth appliance.

Remember that thumb-sucking usually isn’t a problem in children at preschool age or younger. Most children will stop on their own if you give them time.