toddler sucking thumb

Thumb Sucking: Is It Normal?

TeamPediatric Dentistry

When you went for your 20-week ultrasound and saw that image of your baby on the screen sucking her thumb, it was adorable. When she was born and put herself to sleep effortlessly by sucking her thumb, it was fantastic. But when your baby is suddenly 5-years-old and sucks her thumb while watching TV, riding in the car to school, and playing with her friends, it’s not quite as cute—and now you worry about the long-term consequences of her thumb sucking habit. If this sounds like a familiar story, this blog post is for you. We’re going to take a deep-dive into thumb sucking—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Is Finger and Thumb Sucking Normal?

There’s a reason so many babies are sucking their thumbs in those 20-week ultrasounds—it’s because thumb sucking is normal, natural, and instinctual. Infants have rooting and sucking reflexes that prompt them to suck on their thumbs or fingers. Some learn to use pacifiers instead, while others continue to prefer their fingers and thumbs. Babies suck their thumbs (or pacifiers) as a way to soothe themselves, whether it’s because they’re upset or to fall asleep. 

In short, thumb sucking is comforting for babies and we don’t want to take that comfort away from them. If infants can be trained away from thumb sucking and encouraged to use a pacifier instead, this allows them to continue to self-soothe in a way that’s slightly less problematic down the road. A pacifier habit is easier to break when the time comes, while a thumb sucking habit often continues into the toddler and preschool years.

Will Thumb Sucking Ruin My Child’s Teeth?

Probably not! So many parents come to our office stressed about thumb sucking, but much of the information floating around the internet about thumb sucking is alarmist. You’re not a bad parent, your child is normal, and if they need braces, they probably would have needed them regardless of whether or not they suck their thumb.

Most children stop sucking their thumbs and fingers between the ages of two and four years old. They do this naturally, on their own, and the timing is perfect because it’s well before the permanent teeth are ready to erupt. Thumb sucking after the permanent teeth have erupted is what causes orthodontic issues in most cases.

When orthodontic issues occur before the permanent teeth have erupted, it’s typically when a child is a vigorous thumb sucker. What does that mean? It means that your child sucks on their thumb hard rather than simply passively resting their fingers in their mouths. In these cases, we may recommend breaking the habit earlier because it can influence the development of the jaw.

Breaking the Thumb Sucking Habit

Approach thumb sucking with the understanding that your child is using this habit as a means of self-soothing. They’re not being “bad” by doing it and, like any habit, thumb sucking is hard to break. Start with praising your child when they don’t suck their thumb; help them find other ways to comfort themselves when they’re anxious. For nighttime thumb sucking, a sock on the hand can help. 

If all else fails, consider a habit appliance. These are banded to the back molars and physically prevent your child from sucking their fingers and thumbs. Most children don’t need habit appliances, but if your child is a vigorous thumb sucker or over the age of 4, it’s good to be proactive and stop the habit before it causes permanent orthodontic issues.

Learn More About How Thumb Sucking Is Impacting Your Child’s Teeth

If you’re concerned that your child’s thumb sucking habit may be causing dental issues, we’re happy to take a look and discuss possible treatment options. Contact us today to schedule an appointment at one of our three locations.