Thumbsucking is a common habit among newborns and infants. However, when the habit persists past two years old, it might be time to help your child quit. Thumbsucking in children beyond two years of age can lead to significant dental problems as their teeth begin to grow and develop, and it can also lead to difficulties in emotional development. While it is important to talk with a children’s dentist — also known as a pediatric dentist — it’s just as important to understand the psychology behind thumbsucking.
In this blog post, we discuss the psychology behind the addictive behavior of thumbsucking, the long-term effects thumbsucking on teeth and how to help your child break the habit in an encouraging way.
Thumbsucking: The First Addiction
If your child continues sucking his or her thumb past infancy, he or she has likely developing a thumbsucking addiction. Similar to breaking other addictions or bad habits (like nail biting), the quitting process takes time, patience, understanding, support and consistency. Your responsibility as a parent is to help your child end harmful habits in a compassionate way.
So, what are the signs and likely causes of a thumbsucking addiction in your child?
When it comes to the signs, any child older than an infant (ages 3 or 4), who frequently sucks their thumb has likely developed an addiction. This is because as they get older, thumbsucking children have likely developed an automatic and familiar pathway for their thumb into their mouth. Most children do this subconsciously, which makes breaking the habit even more difficult.
Thumbsucking is a natural means of self-calming for infants. As Susan Heitler Ph.D. notes
In her article for Psychology Today:
“In a study with premature infants, researchers found that infants who sucked their thumbs or a pacifier had shorter hospital stays. That was because rhythmic sucking soothed them so that they spent less energy crying. Sucking actually re-optimized the heart beats and breathing patterns of upset babies, slowing them and regularizing the rhythms.”
Additionally, Heitler writes that infants who suck their thumb or a pacifier have been found to be more emotionally independent due to their self-generating stress relief. However, the behavior that delivers some benefits very early in life becomes detrimental as a child grows into the toddler stage and beyond.
Having a thumbsucking habit as an infant that develops into an addiction as a child gets older is categorized as a self-reinforcing behavior. Older children no longer need to suck their thumbs once they develop the ability to find other ways of calming and entertaining themselves, but may continue due to the fact that it simply feels good as a comforting behavior, thus becoming a pervasive addictive behavior. This early addiction can halt the emotional development of your child once they become reliant on thumbsucking for comfort and emotional support.
Long Term Effects of Thumbsucking on Teeth
So, then, what about your child’s teeth? Thumbsucking can seriously interfere with how your child’s mouth and teeth develop. Children who are more intense thumbsuckers are often more likely to experience early problems sooner with their primary teeth. Permanent teeth in long-time thumbsucking children may develop problems as the teeth grow in, causing malalignments such as an overbite. The roof of your child’s mouth can also be affected by prolonged thumbsucking. Dental problems caused by thumbsucking will require extensive dental and orthodontic care — such as braces — as your child gets older.
Helping Your Child Break the Thumbsucking Habit
There are many effective ways to help your child break his or her thumbsucking habit. All they require is patience and consistency. Shaming and making your child feel bad for thumbsucking is not effective in breaking the habit, and can negatively impact their emotional well-being. Instead, be encouraging and explain your child’s options for quitting thumbsucking, and why it’s important to quit for their dental and emotional health.
Further methods to help your child stop thumbsucking include:
- Giving praise when your child isn’t sucking their thumb.
- Letting your older child have a say in how they want to stop.
- Uncovering and addressing any causes of anxiety in your child.
- Charting your child’s success with them.
- Encouraging replacement habits for relaxation and to combat boredom.
- Placing a sock over your child’s hand at night.
- Putting a bandage on your child’s thumb.
- Talking to your pediatrician or dentist about a mouth appliance or medication for coating your child’s thumb.
Compassionate Pediatric Dentistry
Whether you need help to end your child’s thumbsucking habit or just need an experienced pediatric dentist, NK Family Dental welcomes you. Our pediatric dental services include complete checkups, preventive treatments and restorations. For adults, we provide a wide range of dental services, including periodontics treatments. Start taking care of your family’s dental health by contacting NK Family Dental to schedule your appointment with Dr. Nilofer Khan or Dr. Waeil Elmisalati.