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Is it OK if my baby sucks their thumb?

Natural Sucking Reflex

Yes. Babies are born with a suck reflex. It’s a natural reflex and useful to survival. Babies perform two types of sucking, nutritive (breastfeeding and bottle feeding) and non-nutritive (dummy, thumb, fingers, blanket etc.). As the name suggests, non-nutritive sucking does not provide the baby with nutrients, but it does provide soothing to the baby and can help them settle and sleep. As babies grow, they explore their world by putting things in their mouths and become more aware of their thumb or fingers. This is all a natural part of their development.

During teething, babies and toddlers may also resort to biting in addition to sucking to relieve some of the pain in their gums.

As they grow older, some children will continue to suck their thumb/fingers/dummy to help them sleep at night and to calm them when they are upset. Many children will naturally grow out of this between the ages of 2 and 4, without any external assistance or pressure.

When is it an Issue?

Dentists and medical professionals start to take more serious notice of thumb/finger sucking if it persists beyond this, and into the time when permanent teeth are beginning to errupt. This is because the correct positioning of the tongue at rest plays a large part in the way the jaw and teeth develop. By inserting the thumb, the palate is pushed up and teeth forward, causing misalignment of the jaws and teeth. Whilst it is a considerable issue with a child’s permanent teeth, the effects on the primary (baby) teeth shouldn’t be entirely discounted as there can be issues with the shape and alignment of the jaw.

In addition, the intensity of the sucking also contributes to the magnitude of the problem. A child with an intense suck is putting more pressure on their mouth and teeth, than a child who merely rests their thumb in their mouth.

(Dummies can also affect the oral development in a similar way, but it is often an easier habit to break).

How to Help Your Child

You know your child best. What works for one child, may not work for another child. But it is important to persist and pay attention to the problem.

Here are some strategies that have shown a degree of success in some children:

  • Provide positive reinforcement for times when the child is not sucking their thumb/fingers.

  • Assist your child with other ways to manage their nervous or anxious feelings.

  • Keep your child busy with their hands and reduce TV time (as this is a prime time for children to be sucking their thumb at rest).

  • Invite older children to be involved in the process, they may want to set up a reward chart or have a special codeword to remind them to stop sucking their thumb.

  • Get your dentist to explain what will happen to their teeth if they continue sucking their thumb.

  • Cover the thumb/fingers with a bandaid or sock at night.

If you and your child are still experiencing difficulties or you have any concerns, please consult your local dentist.

Here at Dentaltown we are always ready to help.

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