Topic Overview

Thumb-sucking, finger-sucking, and pacifier use can cause
malocclusion (poor bite) in young children. But
when a child stops the sucking habit, the teeth naturally begin moving back to
their normal positions.

Infants are born with a natural sucking reflex, and it’s common for
this reflex to evolve into a comforting behavior. But thumb- and
finger-sucking and pacifier use for more than 4 to 6 hours in 24 hours can

  • Push the upper front teeth (incisors) outward and
    the lower incisors inward (overjet).
  • Prevent the incisors from
    coming in (erupting) completely (open bite).
  • Cause the top molars
    to bite inside the lower molars (cross bite).

The sooner a child stops sucking on a finger, thumb, or pacifier, the
better for incoming permanent teeth. Pediatricians and pediatric dentists recommend that you take your child to see a dentist if your child is 4 years old and still has a sucking habit. If this habit lasts until age 5 or 6, your child’s permanent incisors probably won’t come in straight. And your child may need orthodontic treatment to help align his or her teeth.

Helping your child quit a sucking habit

Treating sucking habits in children isn’t usually needed. Most
children stop on their own. Most parents find it easier to wean
a child from pacifier use than from thumb- or finger-sucking. Children who
continue to suck their thumbs till early school age may feel pressure from
their peers and may decide to stop then.

Treatment for thumb-sucking is a controversial topic. Some children
are not ready or able to stop their sucking habit, despite their dentists’ or
parents’ decision that they must. Some parents and professionals believe that
when a child won’t cooperate, the treatment won’t be effective. It could even
be traumatic and may prolong the habit. Others believe that it’s sometimes
necessary to try to stop the habit without the child’s cooperation.

Treatment to stop a sucking habit works best if your child is
involved in the treatment and agrees to try to stop. By educating your child,
staying neutral, and not being critical, you can help your child get ready for
sacrificing a long-held habit. Consider these tips when helping your child quit
thumb-sucking or related habits.

  • Pick a low-stress period of time. Avoid a time of
    change or challenge, such as a move, divorce, the start of the school year, or
    even a new sports activity.
  • Enlist your child’s dentist for
    providing some education about the effects of thumb-sucking.
  • Help
    your child put away any attachment objects that may trigger the sucking habit,
    such as a baby blanket or toy.
  • With your child, develop a reminder
    for not sucking the thumb, such as putting a mitten, a sock, an adhesive
    bandage, or a bitter-tasting substance on the thumb, especially at night. A
    bulky elastic bandage, loosely wrapped around the mid-arm, can make it
    difficult for the hand to reach the mouth while your child sleeps.
  • Use positive reinforcement. Compliment your child for the smallest
    of gains as well as the big successes.
  • Develop a reward system,
    such as putting a star on the calendar for each successful day. After an
    agreed-upon number of days, have a celebration for your child.

For more information, see the topic Thumb-Sucking.

Related Information


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer William F. Hohlt, DDS – Orthodontics

Current as ofMay 7, 2017