Helpful Pediatric Dentistry Tips!

How to Stop Thumb Sucking

by Dr. Steve Whittemore, D.D.S. | Published October 27, 2022

Thumb sucking may be simultaneously one of your child’s biggest habits and comforts. For babies, it’s a natural root reflex they developed in utero. For toddlers, thumb or digit sucking can become a familiar way to distract from the discomfort of teething. While this is a common behavior, it can prove to be harmful to their teeth development as they get older. 

Development issues could include disrupting teeth alignment, distorting the shape of the roof palate, and more. Not only that, but continuing this behavior allows for more bacteria to get into the mouth and decrease overall oral hygiene. This leaves children more susceptible to illness such as strep throat, tonsillitis, etc. It’s important to begin practicing techniques to avoid the habit of thumb or digit sucking. 

When Should a Child Stop Thumb or Digit Sucking?

This is a behavior that is rooted even before birth. These reflexes give your child a strong sense of security. As babies grow into the toddler stage, it is likely this habit will grow with them. From ages three to four, this habit is usually lost naturally. If not, then it’s time to begin the process of helping them to stop.

Identify Your Child’s Trigger

Understanding why this behavior is still occurring may help you think of unique ways to stop the behavior. Around three years old, their teething and baby stage have most likely passed, and children no longer need to use thumb sucking as a way of relief. However, this behavior in toddlers or young children may still occur during stressful situations. Whenever they are scared, shy or nervous, sucking their thumb provides an immediate comfort with the natural sense of security it gave them as an infant. Other common reasons why children suck their thumb could be to help them get to sleep, an attention-seeking behavior, and being tired. 

Talk to Your Child

At this age, children want to be treated like adults. They want to do things on their own and being thought of as a “kid” or a “baby” can be demeaning to them. We recommend addressing the thumb or digit sucking as a conversation. Just like adults would, sit your child down and talk about why this behavior is not good. Then, help them choose a method or plan that is unique to their trigger. The main thing is to use positive ways to encourage them to stop.

Ways to Stop Thumb or Digit Sucking

Seeking Attention from Others

If your child’s trigger is attention-seeking, ignoring it may be the best thing you can do for them. If you or others react to this behavior, your child will learn to do it more when they want attention. With no reaction, your child will become confused and may begin to resort to other ways. This is a great time to teach your child more positive behaviors they can do to get your undivided attention.

Bedtime or Stress Habit

If your child’s trigger is trying to fall asleep or in reaction to stressful situations— positive reinforcement is the way to go. Make a fun “game” out of this learned behavior. Keep track of time NOT thumb or digit sucking on a chart or calendar that your child can fill out themselves with stickers, so that they can visually see their progress. Make sure these are attainable goals that start off small and get longer over time. 

Or, suggest an alternative in lieu of this habit. Teach your child positive coping skills and keep track when they do this. With both methods, provide lots of encouragement and assure them through gentle reminders. 

Breaking Any Habit Takes Time

As a parent, your days are likely filled to the brim with activities, tasks, etc. Remember to keep calm and be attentive to your child when helping them with their thumb or digit sucking habit. Set a small amount of time aside every single day to check in with your child and talk about their progress. This helps both you and your child remember to stay on track, as well as gives you peace of mind.

Oral Hygiene is Important and Necessary

When it comes to dental care, identifying negative behaviors and putting a plan in place to stop them at a young age can do wonders for your child’s future. Stronger oral hygiene is a stronger immune system with fewer dental complications down the road. Schedule an appointment with Pediatric Dentistry of Central Iowa to get started today! 

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