What are the benefits of thumb sucking over dummy/pacifier use?

Many parents of young thumb suckers ask the question whether they should substitute a dummy or pacifier for the thumb. So far, research does not show that one is preferable over the other. Also, although parents can encourage a child to suck a dummy/pacifier rather than a thumb, they can’t control which the child will prefer.

The advantages of using a dummy/pacifier include being able to control when your child is allowed to use it and being able to take the pacifier away when it is no longer appropriate.

An advantage of thumb sucking is that it may not interfere with breast-feeding and children usually stop on their own between the ages of 3 to 5. But if thumb sucking continues once a child starts school, dental problems may develop. Also, it may be more difficult for a child to stop thumb sucking than using a dummy/pacifier.

Talk to your doctor about how long you should wait before you introduce a dummy/pacifier to a breast-feeding infant.

Keep in mind that there is no reason to encourage thumb sucking or dummy/pacifier use in infants who do not show a need. The sucking instinct in these infants is satisfied through breast- or bottle-feeding.

How can I explain to my child the damage caused by thumb sucking?

Motivate your child by talking to him or her about why it is important to stop thumb sucking. Explain that stopping will help him or her have a beautiful smile and nice teeth. Let your child know that continuing will cause problems with how his or her teeth grow.

  • Use a mirror to show your child the changes happening to his or her teeth or mouth shape.
  • Talk about the unhealthy germs that are on our hands and how the child puts the germs in his or her mouth by thumb sucking.
  • Talk to your child about becoming a “big boy” or “big girl” by stopping thumb sucking. Remind your child that he or she may be teased for continuing thumb sucking.

Make sure you choose the right time to have this discussion. Children often suck their thumbs to relieve stress. Picking a stress-free time will help the child succeed. Also, a child probably needs to be 4 or 5 in order to understand your reasoning and to be able to cooperate in this process.

How can I stop my child thumb sucking at night?

Thumb-sucking at night is the most difficult habit to break. It may take up to 3 months before your child is able to fall asleep without thumb sucking. Try offering a favourite stuffed animal or putting a hand puppet on your child’s hand at bedtime as a reminder. Gently explain to your child that if he or she continues to suck the thumb during the night, the habit will not go away and the changes to the mouth will continue to occur.

Remember your child needs your empathy and encouragement throughout the process.. Acknowledge that this is a difficult habit to break. If you are consistent, patient, and positive, your child will be more likely to succeed.  This is your child’s habit to break, and he or she must be willing to cooperate. Do not force your child to comply.

What should I look out for?

Not all children suck their thumb in the same way. Some suck passively with the thumb gently resting inside their mouth, this is less likely to cause severe damage to teeth and mouth. However, some children are aggressive thumb-suckers, placing pressure on their mouth or teeth, the habit may cause problems with tooth alignment and proper mouth growth. Some children also favour sucking a finger over a thumb, this can also have a detrimental effect on oral development.

Extended sucking affects both the teeth and the shape of the face and may lead to a need for orthodontic treatment in the future.

When should I seek professional help?

If, after a period of time, you find that a combination of home remedies and encouragement is not working please seek professional help. You do not want your child’s oral health compromised so always seek advice if you have concerns and if your child continues to thumb suck once they start losing their milk teeth.