Babies are born with a reflex to suck any object placed in their mouth. Sucking on fingers or thumbs is normal when children are very young. Most children stop somewhere between two and four years of age. However, if thumb or finger sucking continues past this age it can alter the normal growth of the jaws and cause significant misalignment of the front adult teeth as they erupt into the mouth.
Problems caused by thumb or finger sucking
Long-time thumb or finger sucking may lead to:
Protrusive upper front teeth and tipped back lower front teeth: an overbite (buck teeth). This can change the shape of the face.
An open bite – when the top and bottom teeth don’t meet. The shape of the opening between the upper and lower front teeth may match the child’s finger or thumb exactly.
Crossbite. The formation of the upper jaw is too narrow for the lower jaw, so the upper and lower teeth do not fit together properly. This can occur as a result of the flexing of the cheek muscles while the child is sucking their thumb.
Problems with speech. Pre-school children who suck their fingers and thumbs can push their teeth out of their normal position. This interferes with the correct formation of certain speech sounds, such as the pronunciation of s and z.
Helping children stop thumb or finger sucking
Give your child the chance to stop their habit when they are ready, giving plenty of support and encouragement.
give lots of encouragement – for example, with a hug or praise to show that they’re doing something good by trying to stop
use distractions – entertain them with a toy or give them a cuddle to distract them from sucking
show their progress– give a special outing or a toy if the child goes for a certain period without sucking. You can gradually stretch out the period from one night to a week, and then to 30 days
use reminders – give children who suck their thumb or finger a glove to wear as a reminder not to suck. The child must be willing to stop for this to work.
limit nagging as a child can become defensive.
Children can easily drift back to their old habit and it may take some time before the habit is completely broken. Keep trying gently, but firmly. Be patient, as the first few days are usually the worst.
Various orthodontic appliances may be considered if all of the above conservative measures prove unsuccessful. In this case, a palatal crib device was used to break the finger sucking habit for this 12 year-old child.