THE BLOG
05/25/2010 10:42 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Prevent Your Child From Thumb Sucking

Last week, we discussed nail biting, and the problems related with this habit. Staying on that general theme, let's discuss thumb-sucking today.

Thumb sucking is something every parent is acutely aware of - almost all children suck their thumbs at one time or another. In fact, it's a completely natural phenomena that seems to be somewhat hardwired into an infant's brain (babies have even been observed sucking thumbs in the womb.)

But why sucking? Well, early in their lives, babies need to suck to feed, whether from a nipple or from a bottle. So we can see why sucking would be a natural habit to develop. Sucking is also very calming for infants, and is believed to be a way for babies to relieve stress and anxiety.

Let me give you a few numbers on thumb sucking (these statistics are amalgamated from a variety of sources):

  • About 95 percent of babies suck their thumb
  • About 10 percent will do so beyond the age of two to three
  • About five percent will do so beyond the ages of four and five

Numbers on adult thumb sucking are difficult to find, or even believe. This is because the habit is not something most people easily admit. But as a dentist, I know some adults still suck their thumbs.

Thumb Sucking and your mouth/teeth

The first thing I want to tell parents is... relax. Yes, there are all kinds of horror stories about thumb sucking and deformed mouths or jaws. But as I mentioned earlier, thumb sucking is natural. It's not going to become a problem until adult teeth start to come in. And, from all indications, most children will have stopped on their own by then. In fact, let's use that as our barometer. If your child's adult teeth have not started coming in, don't worry too much about thumb sucking - there's no sense in worrying about your two or three year old sucking his or her thumb. In all likelihood, he or she will stop in another year or so.

But ok, let's say your child is still sucking his or her thumb after adult teeth start to come in -- what can happen? Well, there are a few things that can happen. Let's start with the teeth themselves. Sucking one's thumb will cause permanent teeth to move. The front teeth are the ones that are most affected -- the upper front teeth will move outward, and the lower front teeth will move inward.

Also, the jaw can be reshaped, as this area is still soft and developing. In addition, prolonged thumb sucking can affect the growth of the palate (the roof of the mouth), which can lead to problems with chewing or swallowing, cause an overbite, and even affect speaking.

Now, not all of these problems are going to happen to everyone. I know adult thumb suckers who have no trouble speaking, etc. But the teeth problem is pretty much going to happen universally. Trust me, these adult thumb suckers I "know" didn't tell me they sucked their thumbs -- I can just tell. So it is something parents want to pay attention to as children age.

Aside from physical problems, many of the problems I mentioned in the nail-biting post will be prevalent with thumb suckers as well -- in short, it's really not the most hygienic thing we can do.

How to stop children (and adults) from sucking their thumbs

There are several ways to break the habit. The first step, however, is to recognize that it is a nervous habit. Thumb sucking at advanced ages is a stress reliever. So any attempt to break the habit should take this into consideration (in other words, is there something that can be done to the home environment to make thumb sucking unnecessary? Maybe, maybe not, but it's worth asking).

The popular "bad taste" solutions can be used, but personally, I'd rather see other methods used with children first. My favorite technique is a simple discussion on how it's a bad habit and needs to be broken, followed by verbal and physical reminders (like a band-aid or a mitten). In my experience, given a little time, this method (coupled with perhaps small rewards for success) has worked quite well.

You can also replace the thumb with a pacifier or other toy. While this doesn't totally relieve the problem, an "outside" device to suck on is easier to give up -- similar to using nicotine gum to stop smoking. And as any adult who has successfully done such, the "replacement" method has merits.

Good luck, and until next time, keep smiling!