When a child is seen sucking its thumb, often his/her parents will pay it no mind, thinking it is normal and harmless behavior. However, when a child is still thumb-sucking past three years of age, this is when this seemingly normal and harmless behavior turns into a problem. Aside from the fact that it’s uncommon to see older children still thumb-sucking, parents should be aware that this habit is inviting a number of dental and speech problems to occur as their child gets older.

Why Do Children Thumb-suck?

In the past, you’ve probably seen babies crying, only to be appeased when they are finally carried and given their pacifiers. In a nutshell, this is because babies are born with sucking reflexes. Even in the womb they may already be thumb-sucking, which an ultrasound image can reveal. Whether babies suck their thumb, pacifier, or any other object, doing so helps them feel safe, secure, and comfortable, as well as help them fall asleep.

Generally, toddlers may either stop thumb-sucking altogether on their own or parents will be advised by their pediatrician to try to slowly wean their child off the pacifier. As the child gets older, he/she should be starting to develop other coping skills to replace his/her thumb-sucking habit. If the child continues to thumb-suck as he/she approaches preschool, kicking the habit may prove to be much more difficult, and could well continue onto his/her adolescent years.

Thumb-sucking Effects

Why is thumb-sucking harmful? For one, it can affect the proper growth and alignment of teeth. It was previously thought among pediatric dentists that if a child’s permanent teeth hadn’t grown in yet, thumb-sucking had minimal effects. However, new research on the topic has shown that thumb-sucking can affect the jaw and mouth of children as young as two years of age, particularly their soft palate or the soft tissue on the roof of the mouth. Thumb-sucking can also lead to a skeletal open bite. While a skeletal open bite can still self-correct if the child stops thumb-sucking, oftentimes an orthodontist will be needed to align the jaw and correct the child’s bite.

Getting a child to stop thumb-sucking isn’t easy. If you’re a parent of a thumb-sucking child, it’s advisable to wean him/her off the habit early on. For older children, parents can try to praise them for controlling the impulse to thumb-suck. As thumb-sucking is a coping habit, parents can also look into addressing the root cause of the child’s anxiety so he/she wouldn’t have to thumb-suck to achieve a sense of comfort.

If the child is still having a hard time stopping the finger habit, there are other methods of treatment available. For instance, a bandage may be put around the child’s thumb or a bitter medication as prescribed by his/her pediatric dentist can be applied. At night, a sock may also be put on the child’s hand. Whichever the course of treatment, it’s important for parents to take action to help their children stop the habit.

Stay tuned to this page to read more topics on pediatric dentistry from Dr. Kami Hoss.