You are here

Ask Dr. Sears: Putting an End to Thumb Sucking

Q. My kindergartner still sucks her thumb. Will this cause problems, and, if so, how can I get her to stop this habit?

A. Thumb sucking by a baby or young child is a source of comfort and gratification, and it's generally considered a sign of emotional health. But habitual thumb sucking beyond age 4 can cause an overbite and other dental misalignments that may require costly visits to the orthodontist down the road. Also, the skin on the thumb can crack, bleed, and become infected. And an older child will more than likely be teased by other kids about still being a baby.

To help her nix the habit:

Don't nag.
Doing so may make your child rebel and suck her thumb even more.

Keep her hands busy.
As soon as you see her thumb on its way toward her mouth, distract her. For instance, pull out crayons and a favorite coloring book or encourage her to help you set the table.

Show her that thumb sucking isn't pretty.
If she doesn't already have an overbite, imitate a bucked-tooth appearance, such as Bugs Bunny's, so she can see what could happen later on. If she does have an overbite, have her run her finger over the protruding upper teeth so she understands that she's doing herself harm.

Track what triggers the habit.
Is it hunger, boredom, tiredness, or stress? Once you've figured it out, do what you can to sidestep the situation. For example, if your child sucks her thumb in the late afternoon when she's hungry, make sure she gets a snack earlier in the day. Or if it happens when she's bored, keep toys or books on hand for times when she has to, say, wait in line.

As a last resort, get a dental appliance.
Your dentist can provide one that will help discourage your child from putting her thumb in her mouth and will prevent further damage to her teeth.

Thumb sucking among young kids is a very common habit  -- one that is considerably easier to break the sooner you try to do so.