Sucking on a thumb or finger is a common and completely normal habit amongst babies and young children, developing even before they’re born. While holding the thumb or finger in the mouth doesn’t usually cause damage, prolonged vigorous sucking may cause some dental disturbances.

Long-Term Effects on Oral Health

When a child continues to vigorously suck their thumb or finger, it can have some negative effects on the roof of the mouth, teeth, and jawbone. This is because the pressure of sucking places added stress on those areas. Prolonged thumb sucking may lead to:

  • Overbite, open bite, and other bite issues

  • Change in the shape of the jawbone

  • Sensitivity of the roof of the mouth

Most of these issues resolve themselves or fail to develop if a child loses the thumb sucking habit before the development of their permanent teeth, Those who do not may be at a higher risk for these orthodontic issues.

How Long Is Too Long?

Generally, children drop the habit of sucking their fingers between the ages of 2 and 4. If your child continues to frequently suck their thumb past the age of 4, you should speak with your dentist or their pediatrician. To avoid issues in their oral development, the doctor may want to discuss weening options, they may also recommend letting the behavior continue until your child gives up the habit on their own.

How to Help Your Child Stop Sucking Their Thumb

It is important to note that you have the best chance of success if your child also wants to stop. Here are some tips to help your child to stop sucking their thumb:

  • Ignore it: Sometimes, giving attention—good or bad— to a behavior you want to stop only prolongs it.

  • Pay attention to your child’s triggers: Thumb and finger sucking is often a self-soothing behavior when a child is tired, hungry, acred, etc. Pay attention to what causes your child’s behavior and address it.

  • Use positive reinforcement: Praise your child when you notice that they aren’t sucking their thumb. Try creating a sticker chart to allow them to see their progress in stopping the habit.

  • Gentle reminders: When you notice your little one with their fingers in their mouth, take a moment to stop what you’re doing and calmly tell them to stop. This is especially helpful when your child also wants to stop.

  • Visit your Orthodontist: Sometimes, talking to a professional can help children to better understand the consequences of sucking their fingers. An orthodontic specialist may also suggest different orthodontic devices to help disrupt chronic thumb sucking.