Sucking is a normal, natural behavior for babies. This is how they receive all of their nutrition in the first months of life. Some babies will even begin sucking on their fingers or thumb in the womb.
Babies will also suck for other reasons. It is a soothing behavior that can help them relax and sometimes even put them to sleep. It can relieve anxiety and make them feel secure and happy.
Some babies and young children will naturally wean themselves from their sucking behavior as they get a little bit older but others stubbornly hold on to this soothing activity, sometimes well past the time when their baby teeth start falling out and adult teeth start to come in.
This is where problems can really start with the dental health of your child. Sucking for prolonged periods of time can cause permanent damage to a child’s teeth. And the number of years your child has been sucking his thumb or a pacifier is not the only factor.
If your child is a vigorous sucker, he will have more severe problems with his teeth than a child who passively sucks. A child who sucks vigorously and for the long term can cause the top teeth to lean outward or to not come in properly. Other problems may develop with the jaws and bones that support the teeth.
If your child is under two years old, you probably have nothing to worry about but you should start trying to wean a child who is still sucking after his second birthday. A pacifier habit is a bit easier to stop because the pacifier can be physically removed but stopping a thumb or finger sucking habit can be a little more challenging.
If your child is old enough to understand, your pediatric dentist can help you explain the reasons for discontinuing the sucking behavior to your child. Some parents have had success putting band aids or gloves on their child’s hands. This brings attention to the sucking for a child who sucks his thumb or fingers absentmindedly.
If none of these methods help, your dentist can prescribe a remedy that is bitter tasting and is applied to the child’s fingers or thumb.
Babies and very young children can happily suck and soothe themselves but older children need to be weaned before permanent damage is done to their teeth.