Thumb/Finger Sucking Habits

What causes thumb/finger sucking habits?

Thumb/finger sucking is a common habit in many children. Babies have natural rooting and sucking reflexes, which can cause them to put their thumb or fingers into their mouths, sometimes even before birth.

Babies associate sucking with mommy, warmth, love and nourishment. They soon transfer this sucking action to fingers and thumbs to comfort and entertain themselves, and might eventually develop a habit of thumb/finger sucking when they are bored, tired, upset or anxious.

It is not uncommon to see a thumb/finger sucker engage in other behaviors simultaneously, such as twirling a strand of hair, holding onto an ear, or holding a security blanket.  
Thumb Sucking

Should parents be concerned about thumb/finger sucking habits?  

Thumb/finger sucking habits are quite normal in infancy and early childhood. Most children will give up the habit on their own before they enter kindergarten. Peer pressure, teasing and taunting at school, usually ends the habit. Should it continue, it can negatively influence the child’s self-esteem, socialization and facial development.

If thumb/finger sucking continues beyond age 6, changes in the structure of the mouth, severe dental problems (abnormal bites, overbites, openbites), speech problems (trouble with the “s” sound), and breathing/swallowing problems can all adversely affect a child’s facial growth and development. The more vigorous and prolonged the sucking habit and the more fingers sucked, the greater the degree of facial change.  

What can a parent do?

Breaking a habit is much easier when the child is a willing participant. 

Parents should consider these techniques
  • Don’t nag or pull a child’s finger out of their mouth. These kinds of actions can result in a power struggle, especially if a child uses it as a way of getting attention.
  • Use positive reinforcement. Praise a child and provide small rewards, i.e. extra bedtime story or an outing/trip to the park. Use stickers on a “progress” calendar with prizes at the end of each week for not sucking.
  • Identify triggers. Look for stresses that may cause sucking and provide comfort in other ways, i.e. a hug or reassuring words. If a child is sucking because of boredom, try getting the child’s attention with a fun activity. Be aware of situations that might promote thumb/finger sucking, like watching TV or riding in the car.
  • Offer gentle reminders. Don’t reprimand, scold, criticize or ridicule a child. Spare embarrassment in front of others.
  • In addition, it may be helpful to place a bitter tasting liquid on the fingernail, especially at night, as a reminder not to suck.
Parent Watching Child

What is the best time to initiate treatment?

The longer the behavior persists the more difficult it is to eliminate the sucking habit because the strength of the emotional dependency increases with time. Orthodontic treatment should be initiated around age 6, prior to the arrival of the permanent front teeth. 


If you are concerned about the effects of thumb/finger sucking on your child’s teeth, set up an appointment with Cohen Orthodontics. For some children, support and guidance from an outside person is often more effective than working with mom or dad and can be the motivation for a positive outcome. In other cases a special mouth guard or other habit elimination appliance may be recommended. 

Breaking a longstanding habit can be incredibly difficult and some children may need additional help.

In the meantime, try not to worry. Putting too much pressure on a child to stop thumb/finger sucking might only delay the process. 

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For your convenience, Dr. Cohen offers no-down payment and low monthly payment arrangements. In addition, we accept VISA and MasterCard.

We serve Boca Raton, Coral Springs, Florida and the surrounding areas and look forward to helping you with your orthodontic needs.

If there are any questions which you might have, or if we may be of any further assistance, please feel free to call us anytime.  

We Serve Boca Raton, Coral Springs & the Surrounding Areas & Look Forward to Helping You with Your Orthodontic Needs

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