You probably never thought you’d come to resent a pruney little appendage, but here we are.

Thumb-sucking may be cute when kids are tiny tots, but it can quickly turn into a habit that’s hard to kick. Which is why the question that’s top of mind for so many parents is: do you have to stop them? And, if the answer is yes, do any of those products that claim to help keep thumbs out of mouths actually work? Here’s what you need to know about the habit that’s so common among littles, including when and how to stop thumb-sucking.

Why do babies suck their thumbs?

When you spent hours staring at your newborn’s perfect little face (or glanced down from whichever Real Housewives season you were bingeing), you may have noticed them making little sucking motions in their sleep. That’s because babies have a natural urge to suck, leading them to put their thumbs or fingers into their mouth—something you might even see during an ultrasound before they’re born.

Around 75% of all little ones in the US will suck their thumb in their first year of life, so if your baby takes a shining to that pudgy little finger you’re certainly not alone. While the urge tends to decrease around the age of 6 months,  many babies will continue to suck their thumbs well into toddlerhood, and sometimes beyond, says Toni-Ann Antoniato, a speech-language pathologist specializing in myofunctional therapy and the CPO of Spot Pal. Typically, they turn to the habit to self-soothe when feeling hungry, tired, bored, or scared.

Extended thumb sucking can be a concern for parents, leaving them wondering about the ideal age for their child to bid farewell to this habit. Although your pediatrician can offer personalized guidance, we’ve got some expert tips if you’re looking to get a sense of how it’s done.

Problems with thumb sucking

It might seem like a fairly harmless habit, but thumb-sucking can actually impact a child’s development in multiple ways.

“Frequent thumb sucking over a longer period of time can affect the way a child’s teeth bite together and the growth of the jaw,” says Dr. Scott W. Cashion, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. “The upper teeth may tip outward or become crooked and other changes in tooth position or jaw alignment could occur.” The earlier your kid stops their sucking habit, the less chance there is that they’ll have orthodontic problems down the road.

Cashion adds that the sucking reflex is completely normal and many children will stop sucking on thumbs, pacifiers, or other objects on their own between about 2 and 4 years of age.

Thumb sucking can also negatively impact the muscles and structures of the face, which we use for speaking. When they don’t function properly, kids can end up having difficulty producing speech sounds, says Antoniato.

“Thumb and pacifier-sucking habits will generally only become a problem if they go on for a very long period of time,” says Cashion. “Most children stop these habits on their own, but if they are still sucking their thumbs or fingers past the age of three, a mouth appliance may be recommended by your pediatric dentist.”

How to stop thumb sucking

Slowly pare down the habit.

Try limiting the time and location that thumb sucking occurs—for example, only at home or only while a kid is in their bedroom—to help them ease out of the habit, Cashion suggests.

Stay positive.

Cashion says parents should take a positive approach and focus on praising their child when they are not thumb-sucking, advice that Antoniato echoes. “Never do we want to do any type of social embarrassment or negative reinforcement to break the habit,” she says.

“Bandaid” solutions like that foul-tasting polish or wearing a glove on their go-to hand tend to be associated with shame and negativity, but the positive reinforcement of a reward or sticker chart can help some kids feel motivated to suck their thumbs less.

Find an alternative.

How you break their thumb-sucking habit depends on the age of your child, says Antoniato. “If your child is under 1 year of age, yet older than 6 months, try substituting the sucking habit with a healthier alternative, such as an infant oral motor tool or a textured teether,” she says.

“Also continue to stimulate the mouth with proper feeding, which can include introducing a straw cup and open cup and progressing into solid foods, which is typically recommended at 6 months of age.” Once they’ve started solids, foods with different textures are another healthy way for them to explore their oral cavity.

Speak to an expert.

Antoniato recommends an evaluation with a speech-language pathologist trained in myofunctional therapy if your child is continuing to suck their thumb or finger into toddlerhood. This will help figure out if there’s another underlying reason for their prolonged habit, like a tongue or lip tie. They can also determine whether additional referrals are warranted to help you get dedicated support in how to stop your kid’s thumb-sucking.

Consider an appliance

If they’re still leaning into the habit past the age of three, a mouth appliance may be recommended by your pediatric dentist, notes Cashion. “If your child’s dentist identifies the need for an orthodontic appliance or dental appliance, they will talk you through what is involved and how the appliance corrects the issue,” he says.

This can be an appliance that helps kids kick the habit by making it harder to suck comfortably, or, depending on the kid’s age, it may be part of an orthodontic appliance being used to kick the habit while also correcting the movement of teeth that it’s caused, Cashion explains.

Have your dentist explain.

For older children, Cashion adds that their dentist can explain the effects of thumb or finger sucking on teeth to your child in an appropriate manner during regular check-ups. He says that oftentimes this advice, along with support from parents, enables many children to stop thumb-sucking.

When to seek professional help

As far as prolonged thumb sucking goes, Antoniato says there are some signs parents can look out for that can indicate the need for a professional evaluation. They include:

  • sleep issues such as mouth breathing
  • snoring or audible breathing
  • restless sleeping
  • teeth grinding
  • prolonged bed wetting

Antoniato says that oftentimes children will continue to engage in sucking habits when they are presenting with airway restrictions, which also often impacts sleep and causes sleep-disordered breathing.

Another sign parents can look for is if the teeth appear to be misaligned.

“Oftentimes the pressure of the thumb and the sucking against the teeth cause the teeth to move and as a result the upper and lower teeth are not contacting each other correctly,” says Antoniato.

It’s also advised for parents to check how their child looks at rest – are their lips open or closed? Can you see their tongue resting forward, on, or between the teeth? Antoniato notes that at rest, a child should have their lips closed, breathe through the nose, and you should be unable to see their tongue.

“If you notice any changes to your child’s mouth or have general concerns, reach out to your pediatric dentist,” says Cashion. Their dentist will also monitor development during regular cleanings.

Overall, caregivers should remain positive and supportive as they work with their child to help them stop sucking their thumb, and remember that this behavior is normal and most children will eventually break the habit on their own.

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