Thumb-Sucking Solutions

  Filed under: Parent Education, Parenting Tips, Speech and Language Development

Are you battling your little one’s thumb-sucking habit?

Children are born with natural rooting and sucking reflexes that often cause them to put their fingers and hands in their mouths. Very often this action makes them feel safe and secure and becomes a habit that helps to soothe and calm.

When should my child give up thumb-sucking?

Many children will give up their thumb- or finger-sucking habit by the age of 5 without impeding dentition and speech sound development.

However, if thumb-sucking persists past kindergarten and becomes a more long-term practice, it can affect the development of the child’s teeth and jawbones and may alter normal speech sound development.

What issues can long-term thumb-sucking cause?

One of the most common speech-sound development issues that prolonged thumb-sucking may cause is a tongue thrust or reverse swallow. This occurs when the tongue lies too far forward at rest or protrudes between the top and bottom teeth during speech and swallowing. The speech sounds most often distorted by a tongue thrust include forms of d, l, n, s, t, and z. For example, a child may say “thumb” instead of “some.”

A child who persists with thumb-sucking for longer periods may also experience increased illness from placing dirty fingers in his mouth, social insecurities arising from peer pressure and teasing about the habit, or an eventual need for orthodontics.

If you are concerned that your child’s habit may be causing some of these issues, please consult with a pediatric dentist who can further assess his tooth eruption and the alignment of his jaw and teeth. A speech-language pathologist can also help evaluate your child’s speech development and tongue movement.

What can I do to help my child stop?

Curbing a long-term thumb-sucking habit can be challenging, especially if the child isn’t ready to give it up yet. Here are some ideas to consider.

Talk about it

Talk with your son about his thumb-sucking habit and his own desire to stop. Empower him to be a part of the plan to quit the behavior. The best results often happen when a child is motivated to quit on his own accord.

Ignore the habit

For some children, negative attention is better than no attention at all. If you are continuously drawing attention to your son’s thumb sucking, you may be reinforcing the behavior. Simply look the other way.

Skip punishments

Your child is most likely sucking his thumb to calm down, and punishing that self-soothing behavior can be ineffective. Avoid placing a plastic thumb guard or glove on his hand and stay away from putting awful tasting mixtures on the thumbnail. These types of products are generally ineffective and may cause your child frustration and anger.

Switch and swap

Have you figured out when, where and why your child sucks his thumb? Does he do it when he is tired, hungry or upset? Does he do it more often in his bed or on the couch while watching TV? Once you’ve determined the source, try and offer age-appropriate alternatives to the behavior like offering him a stuffed animal toy or gum.