Thumb Sucking: How to Break Your Child’s Habit

Is your child a thumb sucker?

  • If you’re child is a thumb or finger sucker, you’re probably familiar with the stress and strains of trying to get them to stop. Whether it be nagging, bribery, positive or negative reinforcements, it can be difficult on both parent and child both physically and emotionally.
  • Thumb or finger sucking can be a social embarrassment if continued past the toddler stage effecting the child’s self-esteem and socialization. It can also cause changes in the structures of the mouth, negatively influence facial growth and development and contribute to speech problems. Breaking the habit early (at least by age 4 or 5) and correcting any negative results that stem from the habit can help your child’s growth, development and dental condition be stable and healthy for a lifetime.

Why do children suck their thumb?

  • In order to break the habit and re-pattern the child’s behavior, it is important to understand why they do it. As infants, we are born with a sucking reflex for the purpose of nourishment. When sucking, natural endorphins (a chemical produced within the brain) are released which bring feelings of pleasure. The child begins to associate the sucking action with comfort, provision, love and safety and once weaned from breast or bottle feeding will use their thumb or fingers to continue those feelings.
  • When we understand this, we can realize that the issue isn’t just getting the child to break a habit that we deem irritating or embarrassing, but is instead about teaching the child how to attain feelings of comfort and safety by giving them control of their actions and choices, thus building self-esteem, perseverance and decision making skills.
  • It is now a common practice in many orthodontic offices to install appliances into a child’s mouth to stop the habit. Though this method can be effective, it does not allow the child to gain control of their actions or choices, it just prevents them from doing the sucking.
  • We believe that helping the child realize the negative effects that sucking can have on their mouth and teeth and helping them to re-habitate gives them the life long lesson that “just because something feels good, it’s not necessarily good for you and you can choose not to do it”.
  • From a dental prospective, we are obviously concerned with the proper development of the muscles, bone formation and bite (the way your teeth fit together). We know that early intervention can reduce and sometimes repair improper form and function.
  • Things you can look for as a parent that tell you that growth and development are being skewed are a high, narrow roof of the mouth where the thumb has pressed for so long, an anterior open bite where the front teeth don’t come together even when the child is biting down all the way, and front teeth tipped forward toward the lips. All of these are signs that you child’s mouth and teeth are forming around the tongue or fingers that are constantly present.

What do I do now?

  • So where do you go from here? At Atlanta Dental Spa, we have an orofacial myologist on staff who can help you and your child through a fun and pain free process that can re-pattern the behavior and help correct residual effects from the habit. The process is achieved with positive reinforcement techniques, encouragement and guidance along with parental support and participation.
  • The process takes a month and involves three visits – an initial consult/instruction visit which will last 30 minutes and two subsequent 15 minute follow up/therapy visits. Once the habit has been eliminated, we will be happy to help with the correction of any residual effects. Call us today and let us help you break the habit, instill self-esteem and ensure a stable, functional dentition for life!

Author: Charissa- Aesthetic Hygienist

Charissa is a Dental Hygienist at the Atlanta Dental Spa, and graduated from Dekalb College with a degree in dental hygiene in 1996. Outside of the Atlanta Dental Spa, Charissa spends much of her time with her husband of 13 years and two beautiful children!