Photo: Janine Segner

My three year old has literally been sucking his thumb since he was in the womb. The doctor saw him doing it on the sonogram and said, “You have a thumb sucker on your hands.”

The other morning, while snuggling with both of my sons before getting up for the day, I snapped a picture of both of them, sucking their thumbs. 

While the SLP in me was screaming, “NO! I can’t have two thumb suckers!” and my mind immediately raced to “Open bite! Lisp!” the mom in me was thinking, “This is just too adorable, and I need to remember this moment forever.”

That’s the advice I want to give you. Similar to overnight potty training, most thumb suckers will eventually, naturally stop sucking their thumb. Your little one won’t go to college with the same habit. 

When to Start Worrying

Typically, you do not need to worry about thumb-sucking until after a child’s permanent teeth come in. 

But, why is it a problem? Well, the constant presence of the thumb between the teeth and pressure on the teeth and roof of the mouth (palate) can lead to atypical growth and development in those areas. 

Persistent thumb sucking can also lead to an open bite (when the teeth do not touch in the front of the mouth, essentially forming an “O” where the thumb usually rests) or a very high palate.

These issues can then take their toll on feeding and speech. 

Sometimes children with a high palate struggle with eating certain foods because their oral cavity is just too large, and they begin to avoid foods that may get stuck up on the roof of their mouth, like peanut butter, or require extra manipulation, like raw carrots. 

Chronic thumb suckers can also have their speech impacted as a result of developing poor positioning and movement of their tongues. 

This can result in a lisp where the airflow for speech sounds such as /s/ and /z/ is pushed in the wrong direction resulting in a “slushy” sound. Other sounds that might be affected include /t,d,n,l/.

So, what can you do about it as a parent? Here are my top 5 tips.

1. Offer an alternative. If you notice your child is often sucking their thumb while listening to a book or watching a cartoon, give them something to hold with both hands such as a stuffed animal.

2. Target in isolation. In other words, don’t work on thumb sucking at the same time you might also be sleep or potty training. Many babies, toddlers, and young children use thumb sucking as a self-soothing technique, and they may rely heavily on it during those times. 

3. Avoid ridiculing or comparing your child to a younger child (e.g. “Only your little brother sucks his thumb.”). This can be a tough one, especially for other family members, but it is important. Scolding your child for thumb sucking can lead to guilt and may only increase the behavior or habit because of those negative feelings. Your goal is to decrease your child’s dependency on sucking for soothing, and the best way to do this is to make them feel more comfortable in other ways rather than increasing shame and other negative feelings. 

4. Offer rewards and incentives. Start small. For example, read a book together before bed and let your child know that if they keep their thumb out of their mouth, they will earn a sticker towards another larger prize or whatever else might motivate your child.

5. Use physical or visual cues. Try having your child wear a glove during the day, as long as it does not make them feel too self-conscious around other children. Or, consider placing a visual cue (a picture of a thumb with an X on it) perhaps at their preschool table. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends treatment if a child is sucking their thumb beyond the age of 5. If you have concerns, bring them up at your child’s next dentist and/or doctor’s appointment.