How to Stop Babies, Toddlers and Kids from Thumb Sucking: An Orthodontist’s Guide

We’ve had a multitude of parents over the years come in for a visit at Aura Orthodontics and ask us about an easy way to stop thumb-sucking. It’s a major concern for them because they’ve heard the horror stories of children sucking their thumbs and needing extensive orthodontic care. While, yes, there is a time to intervene and prolonged thumb sucking can create issues with the teeth and jaws, which we’ll cover shortly, when it comes to infants and even toddlers, you can breathe a sigh of relief because it’s actually completely normal. It’s estimated that somewhere around 95 percent of babies suck their thumb or fingers at some point during the first year of life and occasionally it even begins in the womb.

Thumb Sucking in Babies

When parents inquire as to how to stop thumb sucking in babies, we always tell them that discouraging the behavior isn’t necessary or advised. While if it really distresses you, you could try to introduce a pacifier to your infant instead (pacifiers have the benefit of reducing the risk of SIDS) there’s no need to break the habit in infancy for the sake of dental health. So, what is the cause of thumb sucking? Babies are born with a sucking reflex because it’s how they eat. It’s also extremely soothing to them. Even though infants will suck on pretty much anything, the thumb just happens to be right there on their hand making it an easy target before they have the coordination to reach for anything else. It gives them a sense of security in a new, loud, unfamiliar world.

Before you start imagining your kid entering college with their thumb in their mouth, just know that nearly 80 percent of little ones stop thumb sucking on their own by age five and 95 percent quit by age six. While Dr. Sharma typically recommends parents start attempting to nix the habit when their child turns four or five, if your kiddo doesn’t have any permanent teeth in, it’s not the end of the world if they continue on for a little bit longer and it likely won’t cause any damage.

How Does Thumb Sucking Affect Teeth?

If your child does continue to suck their thumb after their permanent teeth begin to erupt, it can create some issues. The type and severity of problems will depend on how long the habit persists, the intensity of the thumb sucking (some children suck more forcefully than others) and the frequency. The pressure will eventually create movement in the teeth, especially the front ones. Often, the top front teeth will stick out and the bottom teeth will tip inward towards the tongue. Other times, spaces will develop between the teeth. An open bite is also a possibility. This is where the upper and lower teeth don’t overlap even when the mouth closed and the back teeth are touching because they’ve been forced outwards.

Since children’s bones are still developing and growing, prolonged thumb sucking can affect the formation of the jaw. The upper jaw may stick out excessively (overjet or overbite) or a crossbite can develop, which is when the upper jaw is too narrow in comparison to the lower jaw and one or more of the top teeth are positioned behind one or more of the bottom teeth. Crossbites can eventually lead to permanent, unwanted changes in facial and bone structure. Occasionally, thumb sucking interferes with the growth of the roof of the mouth, technically called the palate, which can have a negative impact on chewing, swallowing and even speaking.

How Can I Stop My Child’s Thumb Sucking?

Understanding the reason for thumb sucking is the key to stopping it. Some kids suck their thumb when they’re nervous or need to relieve stress, while others do it without thinking. If it’s a nervous habit, try to get to the bottom of what’s causing them to feel anxious and, if possible, make changes to address the problem. Though it will vary depending on the child, these are some basic ideas for breaking the habit:

  • Have a chat with your child if they’re old enough to understand the concept of bad habits. Explain the risks of continuing to suck their thumb, tell them it’s time to stop and give them verbal reminders if they absentmindedly do it throughout the day. Allowing them to create their own goals will make them feel more invested in the process and increase the odds of success.
  • Once your child has set their mind to stopping, painting the nail on that finger or putting a Band-Aid on it can be a good physical reminder of their plan to quit. For those who suck their thumb at night while sleeping, have them wear a glove or a sock on the hand at bedtime.
  • Use positive reinforcement with plenty of praise and encouragement. Avoid the urge to yell at your little one or punish them as this won’t help and will just create more stress making them turn to their thumb.
  • Swipe some Mavala Stop on their fingernails if they’re over the age of three. It goes on like nail polish and looks like clear enamel so it’s barely noticeable. This over-the-counter remedy is harmless yet tastes very bitter. The unappealing flavor dissuades children from putting their fingers or thumbs in their mouth eventually helping to break the habit. It’s also great for nail biting!
  • Don’t overlook the power of prizes. Create a chart or some sort of visual and allow your child to track their progress with quitting thumb sucking using stickers or colorful markers. When they reach a predetermined milestone, reward them with a small toy or by letting them choose a fun activity to do together.
  • Make a mental note of when they suck their thumb. If you notice, for example, they always tend to do it after an argument with a sibling or following dinner, plan to distract them with something else at those times.
  • Give them emotional support. Breaking a habit is hard, particularly one that brings comfort and a feeling of security. While your child is in the midst of quitting, spend more time with them and always be ready to listen.

If you try these strategies and your child still doesn’t stop sucking their thumb, it could be time to call in Dr. Sharma. As an orthodontist in Surrey and Abbotsford, he offers complimentary consultations and even monitors the development of children’s teeth and jaws for free until the time is right to start treatment. He can give you additional pointers, support and, if necessary, use certain appliances to eliminate the habit. Schedule an appointment at Aura Orthodontics and we’ll work with you to develop the best solution for your child’s needs.

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