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The Gentle Approach: How To Stop A Child’s Thumb Sucking Habit

March 2, 2022
Posted By: Mikaeya Kalantari
If you are searching for gentle approaches to stopping a thumb habit, try these methods!

Before I put on my doctor hat here, let me talk first as a mom. I get that we all need sleep, and peace and calm. I get that we need to pick our battles as parents. I also whole heartedly agree with the idea that parents should feel free to raise their children as they see best. I know that, as parents, we are all trying to make the best choices for our children. And I know that this is why you are here reading this. So, rest assured that this information is purely for learning purposes and is not meant to make anyone feel judged or inferior. The more we know as parents, the better, right!? And now, let’s put on my doctor hat.


When Should My Child Stop Sucking Their Thumb?


I can answer this question with just 4 words: The Sooner The Better. The official recommendation by the American Academy Of Pediatrics is that young children should stop all oral habits by age 3, however habits can be much harder to break the older a child gets. One must also keep in mind the amount of growth that happens between birth and age 3, oral habits can greatly restrict the proper growth of the jaws and palate. Restricted growth leads to dental issues such as narrow jaws and crowded teeth among other concerns highlighted below.


Why Should My Child Stop Sucking Their Thumb?


While a thumbsucking habit can help soothe a child and help everyone to get more sleep, there are several reasons why it's a good idea for your child to stop sucking their thumb as soon as possible. The first is that it causes improper palate and jaw development. When children are so young, their bodies are going through major growth and development changes, and improper growth can effect a child's dental health for a life time.


Specifically, sucking a thumb causes inward pressure from the cheeks and oral muscles, constricting the natural widening of the palate. When the palate is not as wide as it should be, a child's teeth become flared and crowded. When a child's permanent teeth erupt there is not enough space to accommodate them in a proper alignment. Teeth that are flared, whether baby teeth or permanent teeth, are also much more prone to injury.


A narrow palate also reduces the ability of the tongue to sit at the roof of the mouth which is the proper place for it, this further creates an inward collapse of the palate, limiting space even further. Poor tongue placement can also lead to both swallowing and airway concerns leading to sleep disordered breathing.


Another cause for concern is that force applied upward on the palate causes what is called a “vaulted palate”. The depression and vaulting in the palate actually decreases the amount of space in the nasal cavity, causing children who suck their thumb to not be able to breathe well through their nose. These then leads to a mouth breathing habit which carries its own set of concerns.

The presence of a foreign object, in this case the thumb, in between the teeth leads to teeth separation even in absence of the thumb. Over time, this leads to an open bite where the top front teeth do not touch the bottom front teeth. When this occurs, children are typically not able to fully close their lips, leading to mouth breathing, dry mouth, increased cavity risk. This also creates an inability to seal the lips properly and therefore a child can have a hard time drinking liquids without having them trickle down out of the corners of the mouth. 

And finally, sucking on the thumb creates a backward motion of the jaw which then leads to a retruded jaw position. Children with a retruded jaw can have not only myofunctional concerns, but also a reduced airway capacity leading to a higher likelihood of snoring and sleep disordered breathing.


How Can MyoBrace And Myofunctional Therapy Help My Child Stop Sucking Their Thumb?


One gentle option for helping a child to stop sucking their thumb is to utilize a habit correcting dental appliance such as MyoBrace. These retainers are made of a soft material and a child bites into them and holds them in place similar to a mouthguard. The advantages of such a retainer are that, when in place, the retainer blocks the ability to place the thumb or fingers inside the mouth. Over time, consistently wearing this can help eliminate the thumb sucking habit while also retraining the muscles and tissues surrounding the mouth. These retainers can be tried in children as young as 3 years old.


Myofunctional therapy is another treatment component that can be extremely beneficial in children who have had oral habits such as thumb sucking. As discussed above, such habits encourage overactive facial muscles which can restrict the natural widening of the palate. Oral habits such as thumb sucking and pacifier use also encourage a retruded position of the lower jaw and incorrect tongue position. Left uncorrected, these poor growth patterns lead to small jaws and crowded teeth.


Myofunctional therapy utilizes a combination of mouth retainers and oral exercises to retrain the oral muscles, jaw, lips, and tongue to allow for proper growth moving forward. Without myofunctional therapy, even dental crowding corrected with traditional orthodontic treatment can relapse if the muscles, tongue, and lips are not functioning properly.


What Other Gentle Approaches Can Be Tried To Get My Child To Stop Sucking Their Thumb?


Some parents may wish to see what approaches can be tried first before undertaking a dental treatment such as MyoBrace. In that situation, the best gentle approaches stem from that of distraction. When you see your child begin to suck their thumb, gently pull it from the mouth and place something else in their hands such as crayons or a stuffed animal. Doing so without saying things such as “no”, “stop that” or “big kids don’t do that” will form a more positive association with stopping their thumb sucking habit.


Another gentle approach is to try a reward chart, work with them through positive reinforcement to achieve the goal of stopping the thumb-sucking habit. Get input from your child of an item they would like you to buy or a special outing they would like to go on, every time you see them not sucking their thumb they earn a star towards receiving that reward. Keep it positive for the best results!


To learn more about how thumb sucking and oral habits can lead to growth restriction, visit our website and watch this short video. To schedule a free consultation regarding Airway Expansion and Myofunctional Therapy contact our office today!


Dr. Mikaeya Kalantari has been a practicing pediatric dentist for over 7 years working in both the children's hospital setting and private practice.  She has had a wealth of experience treating children of all ages, and medical conditions. When it comes to serving children, she feels the importance of communication between the dentist and parent can not be emphasized enough. Dr. Kalantari practices in her family owned dental office in Mission Viejo, California.

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