Worried About Thumb Sucking? We Tapped an Expert

The first time you caught your child sucking his thumb, it was one of the most adorable things you’d ever seen. (And for some, that might have been on an ultrasound snap since the habit can start as early as in utero.) But now that he’s entering toddlerhood, you’re concerned that thumb sucking may cause long-term dental or speech problems. What’s a parent to do? We tapped Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics, for her expert tips. 

“Thumb sucking is often seen in newborn babies,” Dr. Hes tells us. “Usually it’s not a problem because it’s used for comfort at nap time and bedtime or during periods of stress.” 

But thumb sucking can become an issue when the child is older and most dentists recommend that it should end by age three (at the latest). Another warning sign? If your child is always sucking her thumb in public or not speaking because of it. 

The best way to stop thumb sucking, per Dr. Hes, is with positive reinforcement. That means explaining why you no longer want him to suck his thumb (keep it simple with something like, “sucking your thumb is bad for your teeth” or “your thumb has germs on it that we don’t want in your mouth”) and encouraging him with praise or rewards. “Star charts sometimes help to modify a child’s behavior,” says Dr. Hes. “For example, a parent can hang a calendar on the refrigerator and for every day that the child does not suck his thumb, he can get a star or a sticker.” And if he gets three stars in a row, then he gets a prize.

Other tricks that might work? Putting a soft sock on your child’s hand to prevent thumb sucking at night and creating a diversion (like giving her a stress ball if you see that she’s about to put her thumb in her mouth). Some parents also resort to using bandages and nail polishes that taste bad. 

But a parent should never punish a child for sucking their thumb, says Dr. Hes. “It can be very upsetting for a child and usually, the goal is not achieved.”

Talk to your pediatrician if you’re concerned about your child’s thumb sucking and check in regularly with a pediatric dentist. Most importantly? Be patient. Remember, your kid will not go to college still sucking his thumb. 

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