Thumb Sucking

Children’s Dentistry in Naperville, IL


Sucking on a thumb or finger is a completely normal habit that some babies develop even before they’re born. It’s soothing, and it also helps babies make contact with and explore their environment. If sucking habits go on much past the age of 3, however, it’s possible that bite problems may arise.


In a normal bite, the upper teeth grow to overlap the lower teeth. But it’s possible for the pressure of a thumb, finger or pacifier resting on the gums to interfere with normal tooth eruption and even jaw growth. Some thumb-suckers develop an “open bite,” meaning the teeth don’t overlap when a child bites together (View Example); instead, there is an open space between the upper and lower teeth. That’s why thumb sucking is definitely something we should keep an eye on, though we don’t want to intervene too soon.


How does thumb sucking affect a child’s speech and swallowing?

Due to the constant forward and backward movement of the tongue as they’re sucking, a child is likely to have a tongue thrust swallow pattern. This can affect their ability to swallow properly, their dentition and their speech sounds. See our tongue thrust swallow page for more information.

Speech disorders are also a common problem as a result of thumb sucking. An interdental lisp is usually the most common problem that we see, which is the tongue pushing out between the front teeth when producing the /s/ or /z/ sounds. The habit of the continuous forward motion of the tongue however, not just affects the /s/ and /z/ sounds, but can also affect other sounds that we produce with our tongue such as /t/, /d/, /n/, /l/, /sh/, /ch/ and /j/.

As you can see, that’s quite a few sounds that can be affected in a child’s speech as a result of prolonged thumb sucking. This is why early intervention is the key! Not just in doing speech therapy to correct a child’s speech errors or their tongue thrust swallow, but tackling the underlying problem – breaking the thumb sucking habit.


How to Tackle the Problem of Thumb Sucking in Older Kids:

#1 Show compassion

First things first: Punishing your child for thumb sucking is not going to offer any encouragement for her to stop. You are only hurting the child by punishing her for a habit that makes her feel secure. As children get older they tend to find other methods of soothing themselves which don’t include sucking thumbs.

#2 Pay attention

The best thing that you, as a parent, can do for your child, is to notice when they are doing it, and where you are at when they do. Children who are tired may resort to thumb sucking, or when they are frustrated. Kids who are scared, anxious or worried often suck their thumbs to help them get centered. If you understand what’s triggering the actions, you can offer your child alternatives to thumb sucking before they ever get to the point where they need to put their thumb in their mouths. And, yes, it’s a need.

#3 Bring it to your child’s attention

The benefit of waiting until your child is older to correct the behavior is they get old enough to reason. Psychologist Susan Heitler says her three-year old son was persuaded to stopthumb sucking for good by hearing her tell him a fictitious story about a boy named David who decided to stop sucking his thumb. This story later became her first book, David Decides About Thumbsucking).

In the privacy of your own home, you can sometimes “talk kids out of the habit.” It is okay to remind older children if they begin thumb sucking, especially when it happens in public. Just be sure to do it in a respectful, non-critical manner. Your gentle reminders can be very helpful for the child as they attempt to break the habit themselves.

Refrain from rebuking your child publicly, which can create embarrassment and feelings of shame that can linger for years to come. But privately, make sure your child knows when she’s sucking her thumb. Often, kids don’t even realize their doing it.

#4 Introduce alternatives

You may also choose to introduce alternatives. This tactic is a bit controversial, as some experts would say covering your child’s thumb is cruel and others say there’s nothing wrong with disrupting the positive association of thumb sucking with displeasure.

What should you use? If you can intercept the behavior in the moments before it occurs, you can offer your child her favorite toy or blanket to help her self-soothe before she gets to her thumb.

There are also several products on the market designed to curb thumb sucking such as using a thumb sucking guard.

Thumbster is glove-like lycra covering that goes over the child’s thumb. Thumbster is best-suited for older kids.

Thumbsucking Stop Finger Guard and Dr. Thumb are silicone bracelets with “finger pouch” extensions at the end that is supposed to cover the child’s finger or thumb. It’s for kids 1 to 5 years of age.

There are also bitter, non-toxic nail coats made by Orly, Mavala, and Onyx that you brush over your child’s nailbed to stop them from biting their nails. Control-It makes a non-toxic bitter-tasting cream that comes in a 2-pack and is specifically made to help children stop sucking their thumbs.

All in all, the thumb sucking can be stopped if you are consistent with your intervention. Be sure that you praise your child when she successfully foregoes thumb-sucking for a more productive habit. Of course, if you are concerned with thumb-sucking or are looking for other solutions, talk to your child’s dentist. Chances are, he or she can offer some great tips as well.