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How to end your child’s ‘sucking habits’

Sucking is a natural reflex! Newborns start life with a sucking instinct to seek food or comfort, some even suck on their fingers while in the womb. While some infants are satisfied through feedings, it is normal behavior for babies and young children to seek a sense of comfort, security or relaxation by sucking their thumbs, fingers, fists, pacifiers or other objects they can place in their mouth. Most children naturally stop these ‘sucking habits’ around the age of 2-4 years old.


Thumb Sucking vs. Pacifiers Debate

The past few decades have brought much debate around the question: Which is worse, thumb sucking or pacifiers? Let’s break down the pros and cons of thumb and/or finger sucking vs. pacifier use.

Thumb/Finger Sucking

  • The big advantage of thumb or finger sucking… they’re always available for kids to find. No waking in the middle of the night loosing them!
  • There’s no evidence that thumb/finger sucking reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) like it does for pacifiers.
  • Studies have shown that children who suck their thumbs or fingers, generally have a greater difficulty breaking the habit then those who use pacifiers.
  • Let’s face it, kids touch everything! So dirty hands often lead to a greater exposure of germs going in the mouth.
  • Thumb sucking becomes a problem as your child gets older. Most kids will take their thumb out of their mouth to play, which is not always true with a pacifier. However, if they’re always sucking on their thumb and not speaking, this can lead to serious problems.
  • Experts agree that prolonged and/or intense thumb or finger sucking may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth, teeth alignment, as well as changes in the roof of the mouth.

Pacifier Use

  • The big advantage of the pacifier… you can take it away if your child develops a prolonged pacifier habit. Strive to cut off (or reduce) pacifier use by age one.
  • Studies have shown a lower the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) when pacifier is used during naps and bedtime. For this reason, many pediatricians recommend their use until six months old.
  • A child’s permanent teeth and mouth/jaw development may be affected if continued pacifier use after 2 years old, especially if pacifier is in their mouth constantly.
  • May also impact your child’s speech development too (they’ll babble less).
  • Depending on use, pacifiers can cause increased ear infections
  • Pacifiers have a tendency to fall on the ground, so have spare, clean, pacifiers on hand. Wash pacifiers and your child’s hands often to limit exposure to germs.

Ways to Break the Sucking Habit

  • Talk to your child about their sucking habits. Children tend to suck their thumbs to comfort themselves when they feel hungry, afraid, restless, quiet, sleepy, or bored. If they’re doing it to get attention, then try ignoring their sucking habit to see if that’s enough to stop the behavior. Otherwise try to uncover a cause for any anxiety or provide them with alternate soothing options, like cuddling a pillow or stuffed animal to squeeze.
  • Get support. Rest assured, you and your child are not the first, or last, to go through this. Learn from others who’ve been in your shoes. Here’s some children’s books that might be helpful: Thumbs Up, Brown Bear by Michael Dahl, The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit by Stan Berenstain, Dana’s Finger Is Set Free by Vered Kaminsky and David Decides About Thumbsucking: A Story for Children, a Guide for Parents by Susan M. Heitler PhD.
  • Get your child involved. You’re more likely to be successful in stopping the sucking habit if your child wants to stop and helps choose the method involved.
  • Focus on positive reinforcement and encouragement. Let them know they’re a “big kid” now. Applaud and praise your child for not sucking. Don’t scold, criticize or ridicule them.
  • Be consistent and stick with it. As the old saying goes, it takes 30 days to break a habit. Help kids set daily goals with a motivational chart and stickers, or give them small rewards as gentle reminders. Get them excited about a special toy or reward at the end of the 30 days.
  • Bring in the reinforcements. Let one of our dentists explain what could happen to their teeth if they do not stop sucking, and offer additional encouragement through our “Star of the Day” award program. A chat with the dentist is sometimes more effective than a talk with mom or dad!
  • Some last resorts. Slightly more unpleasant options include placing Band-Aids on both thumbs or coating the thumbs in a bitter tasting polish as a deterrent. If habits persist, one of our dentists may recommend a mouth appliance or a thumb guard that slips over the thumb and attaches to their wrist.

Learn more from the ADA’s Thumb Sucking and Pacifier Use special publication (pdf)

The bottom line, both thumb sucking and pacifier usage have about the same negative affect on teeth movement!

When permanent teeth start to come in, sucking can cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and teeth alignment. Our goal is to motivate and encourage our little friends to end their “sucking habits” in a timely manner so their smiles grow correctly. Our “Star of the Day” program will help you and your child address their thumb sucking, finger sucking or pacifier habit in a fun and safe way. During your next visit, if they have stopped the habit, they can select one of our “Star of the Day” prizes and get a photo with Cactus Jack as a reward!

Pediatric Dentist Frisco Kids Dentistry - habit buster

Got more questions? We're here to help!

As adults, we know that breaking bad habits isn’t always a quick, simple process! If you need tips or have any questions about ways to encourage your child through this process, please call (214) 618-5200 during our office hours and our team will be happy to help or book an appointment to assess your child’s sucking situation further.

Read a success story about how a doctor helped his daughter stop sucking her thumb.

👉 Before you arrive for an appointment, please read our New Office Procedures and complete our COVID-19 Screening Form. Also review these procedures with your child(ren), so they are prepared too.

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