Thumb sucking is a habit which many children have, and as a whole, it shouldn’t be a major concern for parents. Studies show that some babies even start sucking their thumb in the womb. However, it’s important to know if it could have an effect on the growth of your child’s teeth.

Here, Dr Jenny Kabir describes the benefits of thumb sucking and makes suggestions on the right time to encourage your child to stop.

Benefits of Thumb Sucking

When children are young, the act of thumb sucking can actually be really good for them as it helps them to relax. You may find that if you give your baby a dummy it will help them sleep, and thumb sucking has a similar effect. However, if they suck their own thumb, they are able to take control themselves, and may even give you the benefit of getting themselves back to sleep if they wake up in the night!

When should they stop?

Most children will stop sucking their thumbs between the ages of 2 and 4, but thumb sucking does sometimes continue past this age. If your child is still sucking at the age of 5 or 6, this is when it might be time to think about intervening. As long as the habit is cut by the age of 7 or 8, the teeth will usually have no long term impact. However, if you leave it until the later stages it may be a habit that becomes very difficult to stop. It’s best to intervene as soon as possible when the baby teeth have fully erupted.

Teeth Development and Thumb Sucking

There are two problems which may occur when your child sucks their thumb.

  1. It may lead to an open bite. This means when teeth grow they will make space for the thumb in the mouth, therefore will cause a gap between upper and lower teeth when the mouth is closed.
  1. If your child is still sucking their thumb when their second teeth start to appear, it could affect the growth and alignment of these teeth in their mouth. However, note that there is a difference between if a child sucks fairly hard and vigorously, or whether it is simply placed in their mouth. The latter has less of an impact but overall can still be a problem if they reach an older age.

What to do?

One of the best things you can do first is to visit your dentist. They can assess the teeth in your child’s mouth and see if any issues are occuring in terms of alignment and growth. Sometimes having the dentist explain to your child what’s happening to their teeth can help them curb the habit as well as alert you well in advance of it becoming a problem.

As well as this, however, there are a few things you can try at home to encourage your child to stop. You don’t want to be too harsh on them as often thumb sucking is a comforting thing, so children can be sensitive about it.

Keep their hands busy – Often your child may suck their thumb due to having nothing else to do with their hands. Try giving them something to play with like a puzzle, game or teddy. These can be useful for journeys where they may start sucking.

Keeping them doing active things such as drawing or reading can also stop them sucking their thumb, as often the habit may occur when watching television.

Praise – You don’t need to punish your child for thumb sucking, the last thing you want is to lower their self-esteem. However, praising when they don’t such is great as it shows them that it makes you happy and can be rewarding for them. You could make a sticker chart and add a star when they go a whole day without thumb sucking, for example.

Thumb Guard – Many new products are now available to help your child stop sucking their thumb. Thumb guards are very popular and come in different designs to suit your child.

Unless they get to an age where their permanent teeth are coming through, your child sucking their thumb shouldn’t be a concern for teeth development. Do keep an eye on it if they are still sucking when they are over the age of 4, particularly if it’s frequent and quite hard. Remember to talk to your dentist and they can help you if any problems occur.

Jenny Kabir is the Clinical Director at Fresh Dental Smile Clinic in York. Fresh Dental Smile Clinic are happy to provide check-ups for adults and children, as well as offering cosmetic and orthodontic work in a relaxing environment, with outstanding customer service and care.