Thumb-Sucking: When is it Time to Stop?

For infants and toddlers, thumbsucking is a natural, beneficial form of self-soothing. Sucking is, after all, one of a newborn's first reflexes. But as kids mature, the detriments start outweighing the benefits. When does that "thumbs up" become a "thumbs down?" Here's what experts have to say about why, when, and how to stop thumbsucking.

About 70%-90% of infants suck their thumb to one degree or another (even, sometimes, in the womb!). It helps them feel secure and relaxed, especially at bedtime or in unfamiliar situations. Most kids voluntarily give up the habit between the ages of two and four, and that's just fine.

But if kids are still sucking their thumbs when they're four or five years old, that's cause for some concern. At that point, the permanent teeth are preparing to erupt, and little thumbs can get in the way. Thumbsucking can interfere with proper dental development, causing crooked teeth, poor alignment, and even changes in the upper palate.

So how can you help your child stop thumbsucking? According to the American Dental Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, negative deterrents such as scolding or nagging do more harm than good. Instead, they suggest parents try these gentle strategies:

  • Instead of scolding your child when he sucks his thumb, praise him when he doesn't. Positive reinforcement works.
  • Use a reward system to motivate your child; try our My Responsibility Chart Wall Hanging.
  • Figure out why your child sucks his thumb, so you can address the real issue. For example, does he suck his thumb because he needs comfort?
  • Explain to your child why it's important to give up the thumb. You might ask your child's dentist to do so, which sometimes makes a greater impression. Your dentist may offer other solutions as well.
  • If your child is old enough, let him help choose what strategy your family will use. Getting your child's cooperation is essential to his success.
  • Try our dentist-invented ThumbGuard, which covers the thumb and takes the fun out of thumbsucking. (It's received a "thumbs up" from hundreds of parents who've used it—read our customers' reviews.)

Remember, often peer pressure provides sufficient motivation to break the habit, once a child is in school. Kids do eventually give up the thumb—some just need more help than others.

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