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Stacey Feintuch

Thumb-sucking may be a soothing tactic for kids, but it can also damage their teeth. Find out why kids suck their thumbs and how to put an end to it.

 

 

Your 8-month-old sucks his thumb like it's a lollipop. It's cute, but you're envisioning footing a hefty orthodontist bill some day. Should you try to get him to stop his thumb-sucking, or is it okay for now? When should you start worrying about it, and what are you supposed to do about it?

You don't have to muddle through this on your own -- it's normal, and pediatric dentists and orthodontists have seen it all before.

Why Do Kids Suck Their Thumbs?
According to the American Dental Association, thumb-sucking is a natural reflex for children. Babies often start sucking in the womb. "It's used as a calming effect and typically lasts long after they arrive in the world," says Brian Bosonac, DMD, an orthodontist with Bosonac Orthodontics in New Jersey. Once out in the world, kids may suck to help them fall asleep, or when they hold an object like a blanket or stuffed animal. They may also reach for a thumb when they're tired, nervous or bored. Sucking offers comfort because it's similar to the sucking motion used on a bottle or on your breast, according to Dr. Bosonac.

Most kids stop sucking their thumbs around ages 2 to 3 on their own, and it's not cause for alarm before that. Thumb-sucking isn't an issue until around age 3. "Before that, any changes [in their mouths] self-correct," says Marc Bennet, DMD, MS, a pediatric dentist with Adelberg Montalvan Pediatric Dental, PC. After that, he says, "It can change the shape of the mouth, bone, bite and the teeth's position." He adds that thumb-suckers will likely need to see an orthodontist at a young age.

What's the Best Way to Stop My Kid's Thumb-Sucking?
Consider your child's personality when reviewing the tactics below to help him stop sucking his thumb. Jared Berger, DMD, a dentist and owner of Family Dentistry of Brick, PA, says, "As the parent, you're the most equipped to determine what will work best for your child."

Here are some of our experts' tips for getting your child to stop sucking his thumb:
 

  • Set Rules
    Young kids often flourish on routines. Dr. Bennett suggests setting boundaries about sucking the thumb at home. "Tell your child, 'Starting today, you won't suck your thumb in the dining room,'" he says. Then expand the territory to the laundry room, the kitchen and beyond. Be sure to discuss these rules with any other caregivers, so they can be enforced consistently.
     
  • Praise Her/Him
    Create a chart to track when your child doesn't suck his thumb. Offer small positive reinforcements like stickers.
     
  • Avoid Negativity
    Don't embarrass or scold him. "Use a positive reward program and not a punish-based system," Dr. Berger says. "Punishment may frighten or scare the child, which may increase his subconscious need to suck his thumb." Negative reinforcement often only makes him rebel and suck more.
     
  • Discover the Real Issue
    If your child is sucking his thumb when he's anxious, comfort him with a hug or stuffed animal. If he does it when he's bored, like in the car, sing a song. Give him a snack if he sucks his thumb when hungry. Offering an alternative can help divert his attention from his thumb.
     
  • Do One Thing at a Time
    Moving? Potty training? Expecting a baby? This might not be the best time to focus on breaking the thumb-sucking habit. Focus on one issue at a time, says Dr. Bennett. "You can't do everything at once," he says.
     
  • Blame the Thumb
    Don't make kids feel like they're misbehaving when they suck their thumb. Instead, say, "You have a sneaky thumb. Tell that thumb to get out of your mouth," Dr. Bennett says. Kids like taking the blame off themselves.


Stacey Feintuch is a seasoned print and digital writer and editor with loads of experience and two journalism degrees under her belt. She has worked at numerous health and parenting websites and magazines. Her son sucks his thumb, and she hopes he is an easy quitter. 

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