Sucking on a thumb or finger is a completely normal habit that some babies develop even before they're born. It's soothing, and it also helps babies make contact with and explore their environment. If sucking habits go on much past the age of 3, however, it's possible that bite problems may arise.
In a normal bite, the upper teeth grow to overlap the lower teeth. But it's possible for the pressure of a thumb, finger or pacifier resting on the gums to interfere with normal tooth eruption and even jaw growth. Some thumb-suckers develop an “open bite,” meaning the teeth don't overlap when a child bites together; instead, there is an open space between the upper and lower teeth. That's why thumb sucking is definitely something we should keep an eye on, though we don't want to intervene too soon.
Breaking the Habit
It's important to keep in mind that most children break thumb-sucking habits on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. So if you're trying to get your child to stop, the first thing to do is simply ignore it. Pacifiers will usually be given up more quickly than thumbs or fingers. If your child seems unable to stop when it's time, positive reinforcements tend to work better than negative (e.g., putting a bitter substance on the thumb). Here are some things you can try:
- Praise & Reward. Explain to your child why it's so important not to suck thumbs and think of a way to reward her for not doing it — as long as it's not with tooth-harming sweets! Stickers or an activity they enjoy might serve well. Always offer gentle reminders rather than scold when you notice a thumb in your child's mouth, and praise her when she stops.
- Comfort & Distract. Children have different triggers for thumb sucking. Does your child tend to do it when stressed or bored? If so, some extra hugs might help, or an activity to keep those little hands busy.
- Get Creative. You know your child best. Maybe there's a method that would be particularly motivating to him. For example, you could tie his pacifier to a helium balloon and send it up to the Tooth Fairy. When she receives it, she can leave a special present under his pillow!
- Get Help. If your child sucks her thumb, fingers, or a pacifier, dentistry can help. Sometimes a brief conversation with a caring dental professional is all that's needed to help her understand how it will help her teeth to kick the habit. If necessary, she can be fitted with a special oral appliance called a tongue crib, which physically prevents thumb sucking and can usually break the habit in a few months.
Thumb sucking is just one reason why it's important to maintain your child's regular schedule of dental exams, starting at age 1. At these appointments, you and your child can also learn effective oral hygiene techniques to help prevent tooth decay. Meanwhile, your child's dental growth and development will be monitored. Though orthodontics can usually fix bite problems that result from sucking habits, we'd just as soon help you avoid this expense if possible!