For many children, sucking on a pacifier or thumb is the most effective form of self-soothing through infancy and toddlerhood. And experts say that until age 5, that’s fine. “Most children will stop on their own before kindergarten,” notes Dr. Joseph Boain of Boain Dental Care.
However, school-aged children who continue to suck their thumbs run a risk of creating dental and medical problems. “Thumb-sucking past age 5 can lead to neuromuscular problems, such as a tongue thrust upon swallowing and causing under-development of the width of the dental arches and the nasopharyngeal airway,” Boain explains. “Beyond that, overbite problems, protruding teeth, and troubles with the S sound and other tongue-tip sounds in speech can occur.”
Dr. Jan Olivier of Ballas Dental Care agrees that the start of school should typically coincide with the end of thumb-sucking. “Many parents ask about the right time to address thumb-sucking or pacifier use. They may notice changes in their child’s bite or have concerns over social issues if the habit is displayed during the day. Around age 6, when adult teeth are beginning to erupt, is a good time to discuss options with your child’s dentist,” she says.
Nighttime thumb-sucking as an aid to falling asleep is common. “If your child sucks their thumb at night, putting a sock over their hand and safety-pinning it to their pajamas helps curb their desire,” Olivier says. “Many times there is a trigger object, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, which can be taken out of the bed and placed on a shelf in the child’s bedroom. Some children respond positively to a reward after a month of not sucking their thumbs.”
If these tactics don’t break the thumb-sucking habit, the child’s dentist or an orthodontist can insert a fixed or removable appliance in the roof of the mouth to physically prevent thumb-sucking, Boain says.
Thumb-sucking shouldn’t be a huge issue in the grand scheme of parenting concerns. Even if you find your child is resisting efforts to extinguish the behavior, it will eventually stop, Olivier reassures parents. “Whichever situation you and your child find themselves, your child’s dentist can provide comfortable and painless assistance in an environment free of embarrassment to work in partnership with your child and you to break the habit.”