The world of orthodontics hears a lot of questions about thumb sucking and how it may affect a child’s dental development. At Castilla Orthodontics, we commonly field questions on the subject from concerned parents. Since great dental care is a collaboration between patient, parents, and practitioner, we thought putting together a list of some frequently asked questions and their answers would be a great approach to the topic of thumb sucking!

Why do people suck their thumbs at the beginning of their lives?

Sucking is one of the most important infant reflexes and is observed in all healthy newborns. Newborns utilize their sucking and rooting reflexes to begin nursing; the behavior of sucking is one of the most deeply ingrained behaviors in our DNA– it keeps us alive! 

Most infants suck thumbs, fingers, or pacifiers. Their natural reflex to suck– and thereby gain nutrition via nursing– very commonly extends to include self-comfort behavior in infants and very young children. Young children suck their thumbs to soothe themselves when anxious, afraid, hungry, or just bored. Thumb sucking also accompanies times of peace, like falling asleep, being held, or read to. In short, thumb sucking is a wildly popular pastime for babies and young children– and very, very normal.

When does thumb sucking become a problem?

The majority of children naturally wean themselves from sucking habits between the ages of three and six. Typically, pediatric dentists aren’t concerned about normal sucking behavior (behavior that is not coupled with signs of anxiety or emotional disorders, such as hair pulling) in patients under the age of three or four.

 Patients who still suck their thumbs after the age of four or five are at higher risk of developing malocclusion, in which their teeth are misaligned or thrust outwards, and of developing a speech impediment. The older the child, and the more intensely or habitually they suck their thumb, the greater risk of sucking-related dental and speech problems.

What should I look for?

Most parents have a sense of how much and how intensely their child is sucking his or her thumb. However, some specific signs to be on the look out for are:

  • development of a callous on the thumb or finger sucked
  • child begins to show embarrassment or shame about sucking
  • development of speech problems
  • development of dental problems 

How do I help my child stop thumb sucking?

Again, most children naturally stop sucking their thumbs before the behavior has damaging effects. However, if you or your child’s dentist are starting to notice problems related to thumb sucking, there are still home remedies to try before seeking the help of a doctor.

  • When you notice your child sucking his or her thumb, provide distracting activities or suggest alternative, less problematic calming activities like reading, drawing, or holding a toy.
  • Start limiting the time that your child may suck to just before bedtime and naps.
  • Take away and hide toys that your child commonly holds while sucking his or her thumb like favorite stuffed animals or a blankie– he or she may only associate the behavior with that special object (on the other hand, this may be heart-breaking to do!)
  • Place socks over your child’s hands at bedtime to discourage nocturnal thumb sucking.

Be sure to praise your child for not sucking his or her thumb! Be patient throughout the entire process; sucking is a self-soothing comfort measure and if your child senses your frustration, she may feel the need to comfort herself more!

For more questions on thumb sucking please call or visit Castilla Orthodontics. Our job is to work with our patients to ensure they have the best bite and the healthiest smile!

Photo Credit: Chauncer via Compfight cc