Sucking on fingers or thumbs is healthy and normal when children are very young. Most children stop somewhere between two and four years of age.
In many children, sucking a dummy, thumb or finger can cause changes to the teeth and jaws. The younger the age at which a child stops, the more likely their teeth and jaws will correct the growth problems naturally.
If children are still sucking their dummy, thumb or finger when their adult teeth come through there is a much higher risk of permanent changes to the growth of the teeth and jaws.
Problems caused by thumb or finger sucking
Long-time thumb-sucking may lead to:
- an overbite (buck teeth) – for example, the front teeth may be pushed further forward than they would otherwise be. This can change the shape of the face
- an open bite is when the top and bottom front teeth don’t meet when the mouth is closed (normally the upper teeth slightly overlap the bottom teeth). If there is a gap between the upper and lower front teeth where the tongue could poke through, this could be an open bite
- a lisp – pre-school children who suck their fingers and thumbs can push their teeth out of their normal position. This can interfere with the correct formation of certain speech sounds.
Helping children stop the habit
Most children stop sucking their fingers or thumb somewhere between two and four years of age. Give your child the chance to stop their habit when they are ready, giving plenty of support and encouragement.
Depending on your child’s age and ability, you might like to:
- give lots of encouragement – for example, give them a hug or praise to show that they’re doing something good by trying to stop
- use distractions – entertain them with a toy or give them a cuddle to distract them from sucking
- show their progress– give a special outing or a toy if the child goes for a certain period without sucking. You can gradually stretch out the period from one night to a week, and then to 30 days
- use reminders – give children who suck their thumb or finger a glove or adhesive bandage to wear as a reminder not to suck. The child must be willing to stop for this to work.
Children can easily drift back to their old habit and it may take some time before the habit is completely broken. Keep trying, gently but firmly. Be patient, as the first few days are usually the hardest.
Try not to nag. If children feel they are being nagged, they may become angry and continue the habit.
If these approaches don’t work, you could ask your pharmacist about paint on solutions that deter finger or thumb sucking. You can also ask your dentist for advice.
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