young girl in exam chair with dentist holding model of teeth

Is Thumb Sucking Normal?

TeamPediatric Dentistry

If your child has a thumb sucking habit, it probably started before they were even born—you might even have an ultrasound image of them with a thumb in their mouth! You probably didn’t give it much thought when they were a baby, but if you now have a toddler or preschooler who still sucks their thumb, you probably wonder when it will end. Is thumb sucking normal at this age?

We won’t even make you read any longer to find out the answer: yes, thumb sucking is absolutely normal! Here’s what you need to know—and when you should be concerned.

Is Finger and Thumb Sucking Normal?

The fact that so many babies suck their thumbs while still in the womb tells you everything you need to know—thumb sucking is an instinctive behavior for babies. It’s associated with infants’ rooting and sucking reflexes, so it’s likely nature’s way of helping babies prepare to breastfeed once they’re born. Some infants can be trained to use a pacifier instead, while others never take to anything other than their thumbs or fingers.

The sucking reflex becomes a way for babies to soothe themselves, which is why infants often suck their thumbs when they’re trying to fall asleep or upset about something. Because thumb sucking allows babies to self-soothe and gives them a sense of comfort and security, you should not discourage the habit in infancy other than trying to get them to take a pacifier. (Although a pacifier habit is similar to thumb sucking, it’s a much easier habit to break—you can take away a pacifier, but thumbs are always there!)

Will Thumb Sucking Ruin My Child’s Teeth?

If your toddler is still sucking their thumb, you may wonder if this means they’ve ruined their teeth. If they need braces later, surely it’s because of their thumb sucking habit, right?

You might be surprised to learn that this is (mostly) a myth. If your child requires braces when they get older, it’s likely that they would have needed them regardless of their thumb or finger sucking.

Most children stop sucking their thumbs without any intervention sometime between the ages of 2 and 4, which is well before the permanent teeth erupt. It’s believed that thumb sucking after the permanent teeth have come in is what causes orthodontic issues—at least for most children.

There are, however, some kids who have what’s called a “vigorous” thumb sucking habit. This means they actively suck on their thumbs or fingers, as opposed to just passively resting them in their mouths. Vigorous thumb sucking can affect the development of the jaw and the alignment of the teeth. In these circumstances, we may recommend that you start taking steps to break the habit.

Breaking the Thumb Sucking Habit

If you need to take a proactive approach and stop your child’s thumb sucking, it’s important to remember that this is a habit that gives them comfort during times of stress. Treat them with compassion, understanding that any habit used as a coping mechanism is hard to break. 

Never punish your child for thumb or finger sucking. Instead, offer them praise when they don’t do it: “I noticed you were upset today, but you didn’t suck your thumb. I’m so proud of you!” Help them find other ways to self-soothe when they’re feeling big emotions, like deep breathing. If your child sucks their thumb at night to fall asleep, put socks or mittens on their hands.

If these methods don’t work, a habit appliance that is attached to the back molars may be necessary. Although most children do not need habit appliances, they can be helpful for kids who continue to suck their thumbs after the age of four or younger children who are vigorous thumb suckers. A habit appliance physically stops them from sucking their thumbs; eventually, the habit is broken for good.

Learn More About Thumb Sucking

Do you have questions about your child’s thumb sucking habit? Contact us today at one of our two locations to schedule an appointment.