Managing Wellness

Thumb-Sucking Prevention: Tips to Help Children Break the Habit

  • For babies, sucking a thumb or pacifier is a way to self-soothe when they aren't feeding
  • Experts say there's no problem with either habit until they're toddlers
  • By age 3 with pacifiers, and age 5 with thumbs, these habits can cause problems with speech, tooth alignment and jaw growth and development
Posted by September 18, 2019

If you’ve ever tried to wean a child off their pacifier or thumb, you know it can be challenging, especially with a walking, talking, stubborn kindergartener.

For babies, this routine can soothe them when they aren’t feeding—even babies in the womb have been seen on ultrasound sucking their thumb. The habit isn’t problematic in and of itself since most kids ditch this behavior by the time they’re toddlers. However, for the smaller percentage of children who become attached and continue longer, it can become problematic.

That’s why thumb-sucking prevention efforts at an early age are so key. But knowing where to start can be challenging, so we’re answering some of the most common questions about getting your child to break the habit.

Does Pacifier Choice Make a Difference?

Babies find thumbs on their own. But if you do introduce your child to a pacifier, it should have one-piece construction with ventilation holes that allow air to pass through, which helps to decrease pressure on the palate and developing teeth. Also, the shield must be wider than the infant’s mouth.

When Should Kids Stop Sucking Their Thumb or Pacifier?

According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), pacifiers should be discouraged by age 3. Prolonged pacifier use can cause both dental and speech problems. After all, it’s hard to learn to speak clearly and articulate when using a pacifier! Children should ideally quit the habit before permanent teeth begin developing, to prevent problems with their bite, teeth alignment, and jaw growth and development.

The AAPD advises that if parents see changes in the roof of their child’s mouth (palate) or tooth alignment, they should talk with their pediatrician or pediatric dentist.

What if Your Child Won’t Drop the Habit?

Maybe you have your own memories of learning to stop thumb-sucking—of bitter preventive cream or being teased about it at school or a sleepover. But keep in mind that punishment and harsh words aren’t the best means of thumb-sucking prevention. Instead, help them break the habit early.

It’s usually a little easier to wean children off the binky than off their thumb. For starters, parents can limit the use of a binky by hiding it and, eventually, throwing it out as the child approaches their toddler years. Obviously, parents can’t control thumbs in this way.

Experts advise parents to praise kids for not sucking. And since most kids suck their thumb when they’re stressed, cranky, tired or insecure, get to the root of the problem. Suggest a cuddle or story time instead. This can promote learning and help them replace a harmful practice with a good one—a win-win.

If your child is still sucking their thumb as they near school-age, ask their dentist or pediatrician for advice. They can explain how this habit could affect your child’s teeth if they continue.

The Pacifier vs. the Thumb

It’s impossible to predict whether your child will develop a taste for their thumb or a pacifier. And you’ll eventually want to curb either habit, regardless. Both can soothe and comfort them when they’re babies, but both can also become problematic later.

Pros and Cons of Pacifiers

PRO: There’s an association between pacifier use and a reduced risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

CON: Pacifiers may increase the incidence of ear infections.

PRO: Pacifier habits are easier to break since you can take the item away.

CON: Pacifiers may develop bacteria if not cleaned often.

Pros and Cons of Thumb-Sucking

PRO: Children can sleep soundly by sucking their thumb all night long, unlike with a pacifier.

CON: Thumbs can carry germs.

PRO: Thumb-sucking children may have fewer allergies after being exposed to these germs.

CON: Thumb-sucking can be hard a habit to break and can lead to dental issues down the line.

Why Thumb-Sucking Prevention Matters

A healthy smile can boost your child’s confidence during their school years and once they enter the workforce, too. If they kick the habit early, specifically before permanent teeth appear, thumb-sucking habits are less likely to harm your child’s oral health.

So no matter which habit your child develops—thumb, pacifier or a little bit of both—keep in mind that they’ll need to break it well before it’s time for the Tooth Fairy to arrive. So adopt positive reinforcement and hiding tactics if you must, because once this familiar routine is behind them, they’ll be better primed for a healthy future.

Good, consistent oral hygeine and professional care can lead to better oral health and overall-health. To learn more about healthy habits and oral wellness tips for both you and your child, visit United Concordia’s Dental Health Center.

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