Thumb and Finger (Digit) Sucking: Problems and Solutions

Posted on January 23, 2019

When an adult needs to de-stress they often turn to a variety of coping mechanisms—whether that be exercise, a hobby, reading a book, a nice glass of Pinot Noir, etc. But when an infant or toddler needs to de-stress, very often children turn to thumb or finger-sucking for comfort.

Yes, that’s right, your child—even at the age of one or two—may need a de-stressor. Stress can start that early in life. We all know that growing up is tough and navigating the world around us can be really difficult for these little ones. Since your child is not old enough for most of our “adult” coping mechanisms, they may resort to thumb or finger sucking.

Digit sucking is normal for young children. Early on, they develop a positive association between sucking, comfort, and satisfaction—think about breastfeeding, pacifiers, bottles and sippy cups. So, naturally, when children need comfort or a de-stressor, they turn to sucking something. While this is totally normal for infants and smaller children, if they fail to grow out of it in time, it can negatively impact their oral health, growth, airway and speech development.

Thumb Sucking Complications:

Open Bite
Open bite occurs when the top and bottom front teeth begin getting pushed outward. This misalignment causes the front two teeth to not touch, not even when closed. This can make many sounds difficult to articulate and also can make it so biting or incising into things is nearly impossible!

Speech and Airway Issues
One common and concerning issue associated with thumb or finger sucking at too old of an age is narrowing of the jaw or palate. This is where the roof of the mouth develops too narrowly due to the pressure from sucking a thumb, finger or pacifier. Intensity and duration affect this, too, with children who suck on digits all day and with lots of suction-power having worse outcomes. Palate narrowing often result in improper speech patterns such as lisps, including an inability to pronounce hard consonant sounds like “D” and “T.” It also affect tongue positioning and can create a narrow nasal floor which can lead to difficulty with nasal breathing and may lead to sleep apnea issues down the road. If the habit doesn’t stop by the time the adult dentition begins to erupt, patients often need orthodontic interventions including expansion, headgear and possibly even traditional braces. Myofunctional and/or speech therapies are often needed, too.

How Old is Too Old?
If you think your child is too old to be sucking their thumb or fingers or have concerns with their growth and development secondary to a digit habit, feel free to contact us at NoPo Kids at (971) 978-0009 to get an appointment and some personalized recommendations. Most children will drop a digit habit on their own, usually around kindergarten (likely due to social pressures…ie: their peers make comments about it). A nice way to begin the conversation is to start and discuss germs on our hands and how we do not want to put our dirty hands into our mouths as it can make us sick. Kids will understand germs, but not necessarily that they are changing the way they are growing or their airway development. We also sometimes recommend a bitter ointment, Mavala Stop, which really can help to break the habit, but often we do not advise this until kids are a little older…say 3 to 4 years old.

If your child resists giving up their habit and continues to suck their thumb or fingers past the age where they should be stopping to avoid long-term issues, here are a few tips to encourage them to grow out of the habit.

Use Positive Reinforcement
Be proud of them and reward them when they use other healthy coping mechanisms for comfort. Comment when you notice they aren’t sucking their digits (instead of only focusing on when they are). We have charts here and on our website for “No Thumb-Sucking” that kids can fill out and return for extra prizes. Charts seem to really motivate children and are a great way to keep track of their progress!

Limit Times
You can try and establish rules like trying for no thumb or finger sucking in public or they can try to only suck digits in the morning or right before bed. Cutting back of time (duration) can really help them to break out of the habit.

Give Them a Few Reasons to Suck Their Thumb/Fingers
Remember that digit sucking is a comfort and de-stressor for them. While you cannot remove every stressor, if you see your child about to suck their thumb or fingers, you can distract them with a game or something that occupies both of their hands and help them find better ways to cope.

Raising a young child is rewarding, but also often challenging. Trying your best to wean them off thumb or finger sucking at the right time can help avoid extra challenges and issues later down the road. We do know it can take 21 days to break or start a habit, so trying to keep your child digit free for a full month will ensure the most success with reprogramming their brains and helping to alleviate the habit.

If you come and see us at NoPo Kids, the team will spend more time discussing all of these thumb and finger sucking solutions with you. Remember…at NoPo Kids we believe the mouth is not a separate body part from the rest of the system and strive to educate with a Whole-Body Approach. We teach kids to ”Eat A Rainbow” for optimal oral and systemic health and will work with you to find suggestions, tips, and tricks that fit into your specific family needs. We’d love to chat more! Book an appointment with us today to help prevent future developmental issues!

Love and Health,

Doctor Staci and the NoPo Kids Team xo

The information provided on this site is not intended as medical or dental advice and should not be interpreted as such. The intent is to provide as much scientific information as possible on different dental materials and aspects of dentistry where controversy exists and scientific clarification would be of benefit to patients, staff, dentists, physicians and scientists in making informed judgments. If you seek medical or dental advice, please consult with a health care professional. You must always exercise your own best judgement when using the services of any health care practitioner.

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