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On Call: Thumb Sucking -- Not so Bad?

Q. My toddler sucks her thumb. Is it true that there's no harm in it, as long as she stops before her adult teeth come in?

Officially, yes. According to the American Dental Association, her thumb sucking likely won't cause dental problems if she quits before she gets her permanent teeth. They can start coming in around age 6, so you've got time.

That said, thumb sucking's not an easy habit to break, so getting started earlier rather than later is a good idea. First, simply talk to her. Explain that big girls don't suck their thumbs and that doing it will ruin her pretty teeth. You might put a bandage on her thumb to remind her. It's also safe to paint her thumb with lemon juice or one of those bitter solutions sold at pharmacies for this purpose. Some kids suck their thumbs in their sleep; if yours does, try putting a sock or mitten on her hand at night.

When you see your daughter with her thumb out of her mouth, make a big deal out of it. It's fine to offer her a small reward, too. Whatever you do, make it clear that you're not punishing her. If the process really upsets her, stop for a while. Same goes if there's anything stressful happening in her life (starting a new preschool, a new baby at home, etc.).

If none of this works, your dentist can fit her for a mouthpiece that makes thumb sucking physically impossible. But before you resort to this measure, remember  -- there's still time.