Dentistry 101: Helping Your Child Kick The Thumb Sucking Habit

Thumb sucking is a common habit among newborns and toddlers, but it's one that can also continue well into a child's beginning school years. If not corrected, continued thumb sucking can cause a host of dental issues, including overbites and misalignment. The following describes how you can curb your child's thumb sucking.

Identifying Stress Triggers

For many children, thumb sucking is a comforting way of dealing with a wide variety of stresses. One of the best ways of breaking this habit involves addressing the root cause of the habit. For instance, feelings of loneliness at school could trigger thumb sucking behaviors at home.

By getting to the heart of the issue causing the thumb sucking, you'll be able to address those triggers and help your child wean his or herself from that habit.

Positive Reinforcement Works Best

Painting your child's thumbnails with bitter anti-thumb sucking nail polish might seem like one of the best ways to handle the habit, but negative reinforcement does little to curb such behaviors. In fact, relying on negative reinforcement may exacerbate the problem and even cause emotional trauma to your child.

Positive reinforcement is the key when it comes to ending thumb sucking behaviors:

  • Use praise, goal setting and small rewards as a source of encouragement and reinforcement. For instance, you can create a chart that records how long he or she has gone without sucking their thumb and offer praise when they succeed for long stretches.
  • Help your child become self-aware of his or her habit. Most children aren't aware of what they're doing, so gently make them aware of their activity when it starts.
  • Don't block your child if he or she resorts to thumb sucking after being hurt or injured.
  • Don't resort to gloves or mittens. This will just further frustrate your child and make matters worse.  

Finding Other Options

You can also help your child find another positive substitute for thumb sucking. For instance, you can encourage your child to seek stress relief in an external object (such as a doll or stuffed animal) instead of using their thumb.

Dental Devices May Help

If all else fails, your dentist may suggest the use of a dental device to help curb thumb sucking. These devices consist of metal hardware positioned on the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth. Dental devices curb thumb sucking behaviors by physically interfering with the act itself. Some devices may even have prongs that actively cause discomfort to the thumb.

Dental devices should be used only as a last resort, since some children may become immediately frustrated with their new-found road block. If you have more questions about your child's thumb sucking and how it can affect their dental health, talk to an experienced dentist like Russell Pollina, DDS.