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9 Ways to Wean a Child off Thumb Sucking

Your preschooler won't stop sucking his thumb? Help your child kick the habit for good.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD

Kara Angelone's 3-year-old daughter Addie was a thumb-sucker from day one -- literally. Tucked away in her baby book is an ultrasound image of Addie sucking her thumb in the womb. Now, three years later, she's still not ready to let it go.

"It makes her feel safe and comfortable," Angelone says. "I can tell it helps soothe her because, whenever she feels stressed, in goes the thumb and she calms down in a second."

But should a 3-year-old still be sucking her thumb? Experts in psychology, pediatrics, and pediatric dentistry say there are things parents can do to help their children move past thumb or finger sucking. 

Soothing by Thumb Sucking

"Sucking is very natural for babies," pediatrician Robert Anderson says. "It's very common for them to use their thumbs or fingers as part of their routine to find comfort and to soothe themselves."

Within the first few months of life, or even sooner, a baby can become a thumb or finger sucker as a way to fall asleep, to calm down, or to just feel good, Anderson says.

At this stage, not only is thumb or finger sucking common, it is considered harmless in terms of a child's growth and speech development. The questions most parents ask themselves, however, is how long should it go on? Should a child still suck her thumb when she is ready for preschool?

Kids Who Won't Quit Thumb Sucking

"Usually, a child who is in the 2- to 4-year range will start to develop other coping skills beyond thumb or finger sucking, such as language development," says pediatric dentist Mary Hayes.

Hayes says these coping skills replace the need for a child to suck on a thumb or finger. But for some kids, thumb sucking or finger sucking is harder to kick, which could lead to problems for their growing mouths.

"We used to think that as long as a child stopped sucking by the time they developed their permanent teeth there would be minimal impact on the mouth and jaw," Hayes says. "Now, research shows that thumb or finger sucking can have an impact even at a younger age -- as young as 2 to 4 years old."

Hayes, a diplomate and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, says that the sucking puts pressure on the sides of the upper jaw and the soft tissue on the roof of the mouth. As a result, the upper jaw can narrow, causing the teeth to not meet properly from the top to the bottom. Although this can be fixed with braces, it can also cause speech problems such as a lisp that may need to be corrected in therapy.

The long-term effects of thumb or finger sucking don't stop there. If a child has a cross-bite, a condition in which the upper and lower teeth don't meet properly, it can make it worse. A "thumb hole" in the roof of the mouth, which comes from sucking, can cause the teeth in the back of the mouth to take on the brunt of chewing. This causes an imbalance across the teeth and affects the structure of the mouth and jaw as they are growing with the child.

"The trick is to work with the child to lessen her dependency on thumb sucking or finger sucking before the coping skill turns into a habit," Hayes says.

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