Thumb-Sucking: What Should You Do About it?

Thumb-Sucking: When to InterveneThumb-sucking is a natural reflex found in 66% of children ages 0-2.  Infants are born with this natural reflex for sucking. This reflex is crucial for helping babies get nourishment and to self-soothe.  Sucking on fingers, objects or thumbs helps infants and children feel secure and happy and can help children fall asleep.  So, when does a parent need to be concerned about the habit and when do they need to intervene? Learn what to look for and what you should do to prevent problems with your child’s permanent teeth, speech, and mouth development from thumb-sucking or pacifier use.


Is Thumb-Sucking Harmful?

If you have questions about thumb-sucking you are not alone.  Parents often wonder if this habit is harmful for their child and when they need to think about intervening.  According to the American Dental Association, the best time to discourage thumb-sucking is by age four. Pay attention to how often your child sucks their thumb–the frequency and intensity of the thumb-sucking will affect if and when you need to take action.  Some aggressive thumbsuckers may develop problems with their baby (primary) teeth. (It is important to note that pacifiers affect teeth/speech development as much as thumb-sucking, but the habit is easier to break).


What Are the Risks of Prolonged Thumb-Sucking?

Typically, if your child is still sucking his/her thumb at the age of 6, or when his permanent teeth are coming in, action should be taken to avoid dental or speech problems. Children that have engaged in thumb-sucking may be challenged with saying Ts and Ds and may develop a lisp or a tongue-thrusting habit when talking. Another reason you may want to help your child stop the habit at age 6 is because thumb-sucking can influence the alignment of your child’s teeth.  Thumb-sucking often causes the teeth to move outward. This misalignment will usually naturally correct after the child stops sucking his thumb, but the longer the habit persists, the more likely your child will need orthodontic treatment to correct the misalignments.  Children participating in public school can have challenges with social acceptance if they are engaging in thumb-sucking while at school.  To help them avoid these challenges, strive to break the habit before they start school.  Dr. Murri, Dr. Willey and our friendly staff at Family and Cosmetic Dentistry of the Rockies are here to help advise you and help you!


What Can I Do Now?

Most of the time, parents don’t need to do anything about a child that sucks his/her thumb. Children, typically stop these habits on their own.  If they don’t stop on their own, there are several options for you to consider.  Dr. Willey or Dr. Murri will discuss with you your options for helping your child break this habit.  You have both appliance-based options and non-appliance based options.  Usually, we will recommend you try non-appliance based options first before we recommend you use an appliance. We work in conjunction with your orthodontist to help ensure your child’s alignment issues are corrected and to help with the habit-breaking process. 

Non-appliance based options include:

  • Creating rules and distractions
  • Limiting times and places they can engage in thumb-sucking
  • Having open discussions about the habit and setting goals together
  • Providing positive encouragement, praise, and incentives
  • Use a nail polish designated for thumb-sucking habit breaking (your dentist can prescribe one of these)
  • Putting a bandage around the thumb to help remind them
  • Have Dr. Murri or Dr. Willey talk with them about the habit and encourage them to stop


Some children really understand the importance of not sucking their thumb, but the habit is so ingrained that they do it subconsciously or when they are sleeping.  These children may need a little help and could benefit from an oral habit device.  There are a few appliance-based options available that attach a small mechanical device to the rear molars with wires. These habit devices work behind your child’s upper front teeth at the roof of the mouth to interrupt the thumb-sucking process and to decrease the pleasure of sucking on the thumb.

Appliance-based options include:


Stay Positive!

The American Dental Association encourages parents to be careful not to scold their children about thumb-sucking or to choose to resort to punishments for the behavior.  If you choose to use an appliance-based approach to breaking the habit, make sure your child understands why the appliance is needed and how it will help the mouth, teeth and speech development process to move smoothly and correctly.  A positive association with the appliance, or other methods you incorporate to help correct the behavior, will ensure that your child has a positive experience with treatment and that it doesn’t cause them unnecessary anxiety, or negatively impact their self esteem. Watch closely to identify and reduce triggers that cause your child to self-soothe with thumb-sucking.  Anxiety, boredom and hunger are often top triggers for the behavior.


Call to Schedule a Consultation on Thumb-Sucking

If you’d like to know more about our approach to thumb-sucking and treatment options call our Fort Collins office today at (970) 223-6101. For your convenience, you can also reach us after regular business hours by submitting a contact or appointment request online using the form below.