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Many younger children suck their thumbs at some point in their childhood.

Thumb-sucking can be considered a coping mechanism for some children, but new parents may be wondering if thumb-sucking is a habit they should have their children avoid.

Why Children Suck Their Thumbs

Most children will, at some point, suck their thumb. Many children use thumb-sucking as a coping mechanism to help them self-soothe when they are stressed or anxious, or to help themselves fall asleep. Some children would rather use a pacifier to suck on in these moments, just as some children would rather hold onto a blanket or stuffed animal.

The act of self-soothing via thumb-sucking is not one parents should worry about. Most children will outgrow their thumb-sucking habit naturally between the ages of two and four. However, if your child is still sucking their thumb on a regular basis after the age of five, it could be time to address why they are sucking their thumb. Once a child is around the age of five, the thumb-sucking habit could lead to dental health issues.

What dental issues can thumb-sucking cause?

While thumb-sucking isn’t something to worry about if your child is doing it infrequently, if your child still has the habit of sucking their thumb around the age of five, parents need to start taking steps to wean their children off of thumb-sucking, as it can lead to dental health issues.

Persistent thumb-sucking can lead to issues like:

  • A misaligned bite.
  • An overbite.
  • Palate issues.
  • Speech issues.

If you notice your child is still sucking their thumb as they approach the start of kindergarten, it is best to discuss it with Dr. Staley and his team. They will recommend a dental evaluation, if your child hasn’t had one in a while, to see if there are any issues with your child’s oral health. Besides the dental health issues that can come with persistent thumb-sucking, your child’s thumb nail could become distorted due to the sucking action.

How to help break the thumb-sucking habit.

If you are trying to wean your child off sucking their thumb, be careful not to use negative reinforcement, as that can cause your child stress or shame, which could make them want to self-soothe by sucking their thumb even more.

Often, children don’t realize they are sucking their thumb because it has become an automatic habit they don’t even think about. If this is the case, the easiest way to help break the habit is to remind them not to suck their thumb when you see your child raise their hand to their mouth.

Distract your child from the habit.

For children who are using thumb-sucking as a coping mechanism, it may be a little harder to break the habit. First, try to replace their thumb or pacifier with an alternative, like a blanket, stuffed animal, or toy. Having your child focus their attention on something else can help them manage their stress and other emotions. Shaming a child for sucking their thumb can often make the child more stressed, so avoid criticizing your child when they are trying to suck their thumb.

Check in on their emotions.

For children who are stressed and upset with changing their thumb-sucking habit, spend more time with them learning about their emotions and how to cope with them. Try to understand why your child is sucking their thumb, and work on other things they can do to cope with their stress or anger, like talk with an adult, or counting to 10.

Catch them doing the right thing.

Positive reinforcement is something many children respond to. For instance, you can reward your child with a sticker and praise if they lay down for a nap without sucking their thumb. You can even use a chart to help track their behavior. After so many times of not sucking their thumb, you can reward your child with a special treat or prize.

Out of sight…

If you find your child is having a hard time keeping their thumb away from their mouth, consider covering their thumb up. You can place a bandage or a sock over their hand as a reminder to not suck on their thumb. This suggestion works best for children who can’t break the habit of thumb-sucking as they are falling asleep.

Dr. Staley and the Staley Dental team are here to help.

If your child is having problems quitting their thumb-sucking habit, and you are afraid it is affecting their oral health, reach out to Dr. Staley and his team for a dental evaluation. Dr. Staley and his team will be able to take a look at your child’s oral health progress and come up with solutions to help with their thumb-sucking habit.