Thumb sucking is a normal and acceptable behavior in babies and toddlers. In fact, about 75 percent of babies under a year old suck their fingers or thumb. Sucking a thumb helps them feel secure and happy and helps soothe a child who is separated from their parents or is otherwise under stress. Sucking the thumb is also relaxing and can help a child go to sleep.

When Does Thumb-sucking Become a Problem?

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), most children stop sucking their thumb when they are between two and four years old. Children this age are spending more time exploring the outside world. They are also spending more time with other children, and their peers will tease them or refuse to play with them if they continue sucking their thumb when they reach school age.

Sucking the thumb becomes a problem if the child continues to do it past the age of five. Prolonged sucking of the thumb can affect the growth and development of the mouth, particularly the palate. A small child’s bones are extremely soft and pliable, and the palate can become abnormally narrow as it shapes itself around the thumb. An abnormally narrow palate can lead to problems with the developing teeth like crowding or malocclusions (“bad bites”) as there is too little room in the child’s jaws to properly accommodate them.

Prolonged sucking can also affect the alignment of the teeth. It can cause such malocclusions as open bite in which the front teeth don’t touch when the mouth is closed. Generally speaking, an older child who continues to suck their thumb may develop protruding or slanting teeth.

The problems are particularly likely to be severe in children who vigorously suck their thumb as opposed to those who let their thumb sit passively in their mouth. Parents will hear popping sounds as the child sucks their thumb if they do so aggressively. In addition to the aforementioned problems, aggressive sucking can cause the child to develop sore or ulcers in their mouth. The child may also develop chapped skin, fingernail infections, or calluses.

How Can You Stop a Child From Sucking Their Thumb?

As a first step, parents can ask the children’s dentist to talk to the child, who might take the advice seriously since it’s coming from a health care professional. Other possible ways of stopping thumb sucking include the following:

• Wrapping the thumbs in mittens or soft cloth at bedtime
• Establishing a reward system in which the child earns points or tokens toward a reward for not sucking their thumb
• Getting a special appliance recommended by the ADA to make sucking the thumb more difficult or less pleasurable
• Paint a bitter-tasting but harmless liquid on the thumbnails

On the other hand, scolding or nagging the child doesn’t work. Neither does pulling the thumb out of their mouth. Such acts simply cause a power struggle in which the child will stubbornly continue to suck their thumb. Most children actually want to stop sucking their thumb; they just need help and encouragement to do so.

Both the parents and the dentist should consider the severity of the problem. In addition to noting how vigorously a child sucks their thumb, they should consider how often they suck it and when. Sucking the thumb is less of a problem if the child only does it at bedtime than if they do it at school.

How Could The Reward System Work?

The parents would use a poster board and stickers or magic markers to make a progress chart to keep track of the child’s sucking. They would offer a small prize for each week of no sucking and a bigger reward for a month of no sucking.

The child should be an active participant in the plan. For example, they should be allowed to pick the stickers and put them on the chart. The child and the parents should also discuss how many slip-ups the child is allowed per week.

What are The Stages of Orthodontic Treatment?

Children’s dentists recognize three stages of orthodontic treatment:

• Early (ages 2 to 6)
• Middle (ages 6 to 12)
• Adolescent (13 and above)

During the early stage of orthodontic treatment, the children’s dentist will work with the child and their parents to stop bad habits like sucking a thumb or pacifier. The main goal of early orthodontic treatment is to monitor and guide the development of both jaws so they will be able to accommodate all of the permanent teeth and to ensure the teeth emerge in the right places. In addition to correcting bad habits, the dentist may recommend dental appliances to keep teeth from drifting out of place or hold space for adult teeth.

During the middle dentition period, the dentist will recommend treatments to correct misaligned jaws or narrow palates. The child’s hard and soft tissues are extremely flexible during this age, so the dentist may recommend an orthodontic treatment to start to correct a severe malocclusion.

The adolescent period is the one familiar to most people. During this stage, the child will get braces.