Thumb Sucking: How Much Is Too Much

Thumb Sucking: How Much Is Too Much
All healthy babies have a strong sucking reflex. This is normal and necessary; sucking is the only way babies get nutrition. But the instinct to suck is so strong that few babies are completely satisfied by nursing. Consequently, they suck on whatever is handy—thumbs, pacifiers, even stuffed animals and the corners of blankets.

Some infants naturally reduce their sucking habit around the time they start solid foods. But for others, the sucking habit becomes associated with food, warmth and physical closeness. Thumb sucking becomes a way of self-comforting when tired, stressed or bored. Again, this is normal and does not cause dental problems.

Around age two, many children stop sucking their thumbs because they are busy using their hands to explore the world. They may continue to suck occasionally to put themselves to sleep or when they are anxious. These short bursts of thumb sucking generally do not cause dental problems and are not a cause for concern. However, the Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that children who are still vigorous thumb-suckers after age three should have a professional dental evaluation to ensure that their sucking is not causing future dental problems.

Almost all children stop thumb sucking by the middle of the fourth year. A few are hooked on the habit and continue with thumb sucking beyond age five. The longer and harder a child sucks, the greater the chance of dental problems. Prolonged sucking can deform the jaw and cause the upper teeth to flare out so that the upper and lower teeth do not meet correctly.

If your child is still thumb sucking by the fifth birthday, it is time to stop the habit before it affects the position of the permanent teeth. We can suggest practical ways to break the thumb sucking habit including, if necessary, a dental device that eliminates the pleasure of sucking.