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Thumb sucking

4-minute read

Thumb sucking in infants is common, often starting before birth. In most cases, babies and toddlers stop sucking their thumb by themselves. However, thumb sucking may cause problems with children's developing teeth and jaws if it continues while their adult teeth are coming through.

Why do babies and children suck their thumb?

In their first year, up to 1 in 3 of babies suck their thumb. Sucking is a natural reflex in newborns that helps them to feed. In some babies and children this reflex can develop into thumb sucking or sucking other fingers, which is a normal, comforting behaviour for young children. It can help them self-soothe, feel secure and help them go to sleep.

Most toddlers naturally stop sucking their thumb between 2 and 4 years old and by the age of 8, less than 1 in 20 children sucks their thumb.

Is thumb sucking bad for teeth?

Many children who suck their thumb go on to have normal teeth. Whether thumb sucking causes a problem depends on the child’s growth development, how often they suck their thumb, the angle of their thumb in the mouth, and how hard they suck.

Some experts believe that it’s not a problem unless the child is still sucking their thumb once permanent teeth (adult teeth) start to appear.

Problems caused by thumb sucking can include:

  • the child’s upper jaw being pushed out further from their face
  • upper front teeth being pushed upwards and out, commonly called an ‘overbite’
  • tipped back lower front teeth
  • a gap between the child’s upper and lower teeth
  • not being able to bite the front teeth together
  • the palate (roof of the mouth) becoming pushed up and narrow
  • speech being affected, such as forming a lisp
  • the tongue not being in a normal position in the mouth

How to stop your child sucking their thumb

Remember, most children will stop sucking their thumb by themselves by the time they are 4 years old. Others will stop when they get to school and find out that other children there are not sucking their thumb.

Positive reinforcement is the best way to help your child to stop thumb sucking, as well as support, encouragement and reminders. Noticing when they haven't been sucking their thumb, and pointing out how 'grown up' they are, is a way to be positive. It also becomes easier when the child realises that they want to stop sucking their thumb.

Here are some strategies for helping your child to stop thumb sucking:

  • Gently remind your child regularly to take their thumb out of their mouth, and when they do, offer hugs and praise. You may also like to create a private signal if you are with other people, to prevent your child being embarrassed about the reminder.
  • Record their thumb sucking on a calendar, with rewards or stickers when they reduce or stop the behaviour.
  • At night, dress your child in a large pyjama top with the arm ends sewn up, or use gloves, mittens or a thumb guard as a barrier.
  • Look for what is triggering the thumb sucking. For example, if stress or fear causes your child to put their thumb in their mouth, help them reduce this fear in other ways, such as with a hug or comforting words. You could also give them a soft toy they can squeeze.

Thumb sucking is a habit which may take some time to stop, so try to be patient and positive while helping your child. Encourage them to want to stop themselves and don’t nag them in a negative way, as this can make the habit worse.

If the habit continues after they start school, you may like to discuss it with your child’s dentist or orthodontist. It’s best to wait until this age because your child needs to be old enough to understand, and accept responsibility to break the habit.

These strategies may also help your child to stop using a dummy.

Where to seek help

If you’re worried or feel that you need help to stop your child sucking their thumb, you may like to contact:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2021

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Thumb sucking - Better Health Channel

Finger or thumb sucking should stop before school age to avoid mouth problems.

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