child sucking thumb

Thumb Sucking: Is It Normal?

Team General Dentistry

Is thumb sucking normal? Absolutely! Is it desirable? Well, that’s another story. The American Dental Association’s official stance on thumb sucking is that, if your infant has a thumb sucking habit, it’s best to redirect them to a pacifier. Pacifiers are easy to take away when it’s time for a child to be weaned from them; thumbs don’t work that way! That said, while it’s good to be aware of the potential problems that can be caused by thumb sucking, it’s also important not to over-react either. 

Yes, Thumb Sucking Is Normal

Many children start their thumb sucking habits while still in the womb. In fact, you may even have an ultrasound image showing the earliest evidence of your child’s habit. Thumb sucking is a natural reflex that helps infants self-soothe. This habit often continues throughout childhood, with children sucking their thumbs to fall asleep, out of boredom, to help them concentrate, and as a coping mechanism. 

When Thumb Sucking Is a Problem

Thumb sucking can create significant orthodontic problems. Thumb sucking habits tend to cause overbites, open bites, narrow jaws, and misaligned teeth. It can also impact the shape of the roof of the mouth. While these are all possible outcomes of thumb sucking, the science on the matter tells us that they only happen when thumb sucking extends far beyond the preschool years. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that children stop using a pacifier or thumb sucking by age three; the American Dental Association recommends ending the habit by age four. 

Most children stop thumb sucking on their own between the ages of two and four. When the habit is stopped by four years of age, it’s unlikely to have caused any permanent damage to the teeth. Even when thumb sucking continues beyond the age of four, the amount of damage it causes can vary; children who suck their thumbs hard will have different outcomes than children who simply rest a thumb or finger in their mouths passively.

How to Stop Thumb Sucking

If your child has reached an age where thumb sucking should stop or their dentist has noticed potential issues that raise concern, it’s important to treat breaking the habit as a process. It’s not going to happen overnight and there will be bumps in the road. 

Use positive reinforcement, praising your child for not sucking their thumb. If your child turns to thumb sucking for comfort during times of distress, provide them with the reassurance they need. Older children can also be motivated with a reward chart and other incentives, like working towards a special activity or toy.

A bitter spray or thumb shield can discourage the habit if behavioral modification hasn’t helped, and we may also consider using a habit device to stop thumb and finger sucking as part of an interceptive orthodontic treatment plan.

Learn More About Thumb Sucking and Orthodontics

Are you concerned about your child’s thumb sucking habit? Contact us today at 978-475-0450 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Broccoli.