Breaking the Thumb-sucking Habit

The desire for young children to suck their thumbs, fingers and pacifiers is natural and provides those children with a feeling of comfort and security. The urge to engage in this oral habit begins for many infants at birth and can last for their earliest years. Most thumb-suckers rid themselves of this habit by the age of 3 or 4, though there are outliers on either side of that age gap. Encouraging a child to stop the habit before the age of 4 tends to be much easier than breaking the habit in an older child.

Thumb-sucking in older children -- children who have grown their permanent teeth -- can lead to numerous oral issues that can affect them for years and years to come. For that reason it is important to break the habit -- the sooner the better. 

When a child with permanent teeth continues thumb-sucking, he risks jeopardizing the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth. Ongoing thumb-sucking can also cause changes in the roof of the mouth, as it shapes around the thumb. As noted earlier, breaking the habit with an older child is much easier said than done. 

More times than not, a thumb-sucking child who is over the age of 6 truly wants to stop the habit -- but a habit is a habit, and most are difficult to break.

One of the first things to do when working with a child to break this habit is to talk with them. Explain to them in simple terms why their thumb-sucking is harmful and why you would like for them to stop doing it. Speak positively about the situation, and explain how you would like to help them break the habit. Then tell your child what the plan is and how you will complete that plan together. Positive reinforcement nearly always goes a long way toward accomplishing the goal, so consider some prizes and celebrations for successful benchmarks that are achieved.

Be mindful that some children may associate their thumb-sucking with one of their favorite stuffed animals or blankets. If the child consistently sucks their thumb with one of those items, you may need to bite the bullet and explain to them that you need to temporarily take the blanket or stuffed animal away. Often times this may only be necessary at night, if that’s the time that the thumb-sucking occurs most.

There are other products available to help if the habit is too hard to break with sheer willpower alone. There are thumb guards and bitter-tasting nail polishes that are often times helpful. 

If you are concerned about your child’s thumb-sucking, or if you’d simply like to consult with a professional prior to putting a plan to quit in action, get in touch with your family dentist.

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