Is Thumb Sucking Bad for Children?

wiseGEEK Writer

Sometimes a sonogram will catch it: the developing baby sucking on a thumb or on fingers. Parents should certainly not feel that this is cause for concern. Babies are built with a sucking reflex, and without it, trying to breast or bottle feed them would be very difficult. It is absolutely natural for infants to practice thumb sucking, especially as soon as they possess the coordination to get the thumb to the mouth. Many find this practice far preferable to giving the baby a pacifier, and it can help to soothe unhappy babies and promote relaxation.

Light sucking may have little to no effect on the arrangement of teeth in a child's mouth.
Light sucking may have little to no effect on the arrangement of teeth in a child's mouth.

As great as thumb sucking can be in early life, it can create problems later. These are not dangerous problems but they may be costly ones. There is an exception: a child who sucks on a thumb that has touched a poisonous substance could be poisoned. The best remedy for this is to watch the child and make sure no such exposure exists.

Thumb sucking is great early in life, but can create problems later.
Thumb sucking is great early in life, but can create problems later.

Yet encouraging the end of thumb sucking can be important too. Once children start to develop permanent teeth, which may occur anywhere between the ages of two to four, it can prove problematic. At this point, constantly having a thumb in the mouth might change the upper palate, and could have an effect on how teeth align.

However, there is more information that needs to be had. Children can practice thumb sucking in varying degrees of strength. Some simply stick a thumb in their mouth and don’t suck on it, and others suck very hard on the thumb. The greatest predictor for damage that might occur in the mouth is the degree to which children suck their thumbs. Strong sucking tends to translate to more misaligned teeth and greater palate changes. Light sucking or no sucking at all may have little to no effect on shape of mouth or teeth arrangement.

Since many children do practice fairly rigorous thumb sucking, organizations like the American Dental Association recommend trying to break children of this habit when adult teeth start to emerge. There are many theories on how to help children give this up, which can include limiting time allowed or limiting locations allowed, giving rewards for going certain amounts of time without sucking the thumbs, and praising children when they’re trying not to suck on their thumbs. Most children do give up this behavior as they progress in primary grades of school because they would ostracized by peers if they didn’t. With a little encouragement and thought as to methods, parents may help the child give up thumb sucking much sooner, hopefully before it causes changes in shape to the mouth and teeth.

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Discussion Comments


@Fa5t3r - Yeah, I think you want to suck your thumb the most when you are stressed out, since I've heard of war veterans starting up the habit again when they suffer from PTSD.

It's not surprising though, because apparently the action of sucking like that releases feel-good chemicals in your brain. It was a survival thing, so that babies could be calmed by their mothers in times of stress.


@MrsPramm - The thumbsucking habit is a real pain when your parents want to get rid of it. Ironically, my dad was the one who encouraged me to develop it in the first place. He thought my sister was so cute when she sucked her thumb and she grew out of it quickly, so he didn't think there was any harm in putting my thumb in my mouth when I was a kid.

Then I caught on and they ended up having to try and break me of the habit. Nothing worked though. They would even paint my thumb with those bad tasting oils that are supposed to stop thumb sucking and I would just suck the oil off.

I eventually just grew out of it, I guess. Once it stopped being a big deal I stopped wanting to do it so much.


I was born sucking my thumb, literally. Basically, my mother went into labor and the nurses didn't think she was that far along. They were wrong and I suddenly appeared and caused a lot of damage because there wasn't a doctor there to take my thumb from my mouth so I would fit better.

It took me until I was almost a teenager before I stopped sucking my thumb and even now I will sometimes still wake up to it in my mouth. It's pretty embarrassing, but luckily I've never seemed to had any damage to my teeth from it. I've never had braces, at any rate.

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