Why thumb sucking can be harmful?

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Why thumb sucking can be harmful and how to resolve it

By Lucy Wyndham

During infancy it is common for babies to explore the world using their mouths, this is a natural instinct that babies are born with, and all parents know how stressful this can be! Sucking on a pacifier, thumb or fingers is perfectly normal for the first few years of life, as children use this to help themselves feel calm and reassured. 

However, if this continues beyond 5 years of age, it could be a sign of a problem with a child’s emotional or social development. Helping your child break the habit at the right time is important, otherwise this could have some unwanted side effects. 

Possible side effects

One of the main benefits to both child and parents of this habit is that it helps them both fall and stay asleep much more easily. However, starting to break the habit before your child’s teeth begin to develop is really important, as if they are allowed to continue, this could cause problems with their teeth alignment which could give rise to the need for dental work in the future. 

If a child is still sucking on their thumb or pacifier after they have developed all their milk teeth, then this has the potential to lead to middle ear infections which could in some cases end up in needing surgery.

Other long-term effects of excessive thumb sucking include:

  • The development of an underbite or overbite
  • Malformation or sensitivity of the roof of the mouth
  • An adverse effect on jaw positioning which could lead to a speech impediment
  • An increased chance of picking up harmful bacteria or pathogens
  • Skin problems such as a thumb callous or warped thumb nail
  • Social issues such as being bullied by their peers

How to break the habit  

About 30% of children in pre-school still suck their thumbs, however the following advice could help you ensure that your child breaks the habit at a healthy time. The most important thing is to show support and positive encouragement to your child while they are in the process of stopping, this will help build their self-esteem which will in turn reduce the need or desire to suck their thumbs for comfort. 

Educate them on the reasons to stop

Taking the punishment route or continually nagging them could cause them stress which will in turn make them want to suck their thumbs more. Eliminating any stressors in their environment will also help encourage them to stop. Educating your child on the risks and potential long-term effects of continuing the habit will make clear to them the reasons why they should stop and hopefully help put them off.

If the situation still isn’t improving there are other less pleasant routes that you can go down such as putting socks on your child’s hands while they sleep and using tape to keep them in place, or asking your dentist to prescribe a bitter-tasting medication to put on the end of their pacifier or thumb which will make it very unpleasant for them. 

How to wean your child off their pacifier

If your child is still sucking a pacifier at 5 years of age then another method is to cut the pacifier shorter or pierce a whole through it, this will make the pacifier much less satisfying to suck which will reduce their desire for it. For some parents, simply just going cold turkey or leaving the pacifier at home when going on a trip is enough. 

In summary, there are a range of interventions that you can try, and the idea is to start with the softer less invasive methods first. But be reassured that you will be able to find at least one solution that will work, and even though it may be unpleasant in the process, it will be worth it in the long run.


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