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Many Youngsters Suck Their Thumbs

Babies and young children often suck their thumbs. It's perfectly normal, even though some parents worry about it. As children get older, thumb-sucking becomes less common, but a small number still suck their thumbs up to age 5. The habit is harmless if the child does it occasionally, such as during bedtime or a stressful event.

When it is a problem

Older children who continue to suck their thumbs or fingers may need help from parents, a dentist, or an orthodontist to stop the habit. That’s because chronic thumb-sucking can cause the child’s permanent teeth to push forward. This creates an overbite.

If you’re not sure how to stop the thumb-sucking, talk with your child’s dentist. If your child is already thumb-sucking less often, you probably don't need to do anything. That’s particularly true if the child still has baby teeth.

If the habit stops before your child gets permanent teeth, dental problems usually correct themselves. Treatment may be needed between ages 3 to 6. Children usually begin to get permanent teeth at about age 6. Some children may want to stop on their own. They may want to avoid being teased, which may happen.

How to break the habit

Try these methods:

  • Ignore the behavior. In other words, some children suck their thumbs in order to get attention, even if it's negative.

  • Cover your child’s hand. You might try a sock or a glove. You also can buy special mittens or a plastic thumb guard. Either one makes sucking difficult.

  • Give praise whenever you notice that your child is not sucking the thumb. You might mark a star on a calendar when the child goes without thumb-sucking for a day or leaves the sock or glove on all night. Stars could earn an extra story, a trip to the library, or some other reward.

  • A dentist or orthodontist can tell you how to slowly phase out these rewards to keep the habit from returning.

  • The orthodontist may need to place an item inside the child's mouth that holds the thumb slightly away from the roof of the mouth. This interferes with the suction produced when thumb-sucking. This item may need to be used for 6 to 10 months.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kapner, Michael, DDS
Online Medical Reviewer: Sather, Rita, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2017
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