Preschooler Thumb Sucking: When To Worry And How To Stop It

At one time or another, most infants will rely on either a pacifier or thumb for self-soothing. Although this is a normal part of development, if it continues for too long, it can lead to serious dental problems. This is particularly true for thumb sucking, because of the shape of the thumb. Most kids will wean themselves from this habit before preschool age, but others need active intervention to break the habit. Here's a look at a few of the problems that long-term thumb sucking can cause and how to help your child stop.

Understanding the Risks of Prolonged Thumb Sucking

General Jaw and Mouth Problems

Thumb sucking beyond the age of four can cause a shift in your child's still-developing jaw line. In some cases, it can lead to misalignment of the jaw, which can affect speech, breathing and chewing. It can also lead to general discomfort in the jaw, neck and head.

It can also cause the roof of your child's mouth to narrow. The tissue in the roof of the mouth is somewhat pliable as a child, and the pressure created inside your child's mouth from sucking can force the roof of the mouth to peak in the center and draw the sides closer together. This can cause problems with tooth spacing and speech over time.

Tooth Formation Trouble

Kids who continue to suck their thumbs after their permanent teeth start coming in can risk causing those teeth to come in at an odd angle. This can cause teeth to protrude from the jaw or not align properly. In most cases, it will require orthodontic intervention to fix.

Helping Your Child Break the Habit

Getting your child to stop sucking his or her thumb can take time and must be handled carefully. Remember that most children suck their thumbs for security and self-soothing. Any negative approach to breaking the habit, like scolding or punishment, will cause your child more anxiety and may actually make the habit worse. Instead, you need to convince your child that he or she is ready to give it up and then capitalize on that decision. Here are a few methods that can help ease your child into giving up thumb sucking.

Limit the Behavior

Tell your child that, since he or she is getting bigger, thumb sucking is no longer appropriate to do during the day. Explain that it is okay for naptime or bedtime, but not for regular playtime. You may have to have this conversation several times before he or she finally stops daytime thumb sucking. This will help your child to slowly adapt to the lack of thumb sucking.

Be Positive

Be generous about rewards. Especially with habits like these, positive reinforcement is essential. Don't scold your child for thumb sucking, because it will cause stress. Instead, focus on praising those times when he or she isn't sucking on a thumb. Children naturally want to please their parents, so the more praise you offer, the better the chances of success.

Other Intervention Techniques

If positive reinforcement and limitations don't work, you can try to replace the action with a soothing teddy bear or blanket. Some kids will make this transition more easily. In either case, if your child's thumb sucking habit persists, you can talk with a family dentist about an orthodontic device designed as a thumb-sucking intervention. It makes thumb sucking more difficult and less comfortable to do, providing some discouragement to the behavior.

If you're concerned about your child's thumb sucking habit, talk with a dentist (such as one from Kappenman Family Dental) about it at an appointment.