When Is the Time for My Child to Forego the Pacifier and Thumb Sucking Habit ?

A pacifier, thumb or finger sucking habit is often a child’s way of comforting himself. It gives children a sense of security as new things are encountered daily, relaxes them when they are upset, and helps them make contact with their environment. In fact, babies often start thumb or finger sucking habits in the womb.

This is quite normal and most kids outgrow the habit before it becomes an issue to be concerned with. However, if the child continues to use a pacifier or suck a thumb or finger when permanent teeth appear, parents should take a more proactive stance to stop the habit as it may damage teeth. Some children use these methods all day long with little damage to the bite while others might only use it as nighttime pacification and still cause many changes in the teeth and facial bone structure.

Nagging or punishing a child will only reinforce the behavior. Instead of hanging a scarecrow, try to provide a substitute for the comfort and security your child receives in a pacifier or thumb sucking habit. It could be a toy, such as a doll or stuffed animal, which a child can hug or hold. Make time and effort to build your child’s self-esteem so he or she can face anxieties without having to rely on pacifier use or finger sucking. A pacifier habit is a little easier to break since a pacifier can be taken away or the tip can be cut off to minimize the sucking satisfaction. We encourage parents to start that process as early as 18 months of age. Thumb or finger sucking usually takes a little more effort and understanding and we do not recommend working on it until after three years of age.

A visit to a pediatric dentist will also be of great help. Your kid’s dentist can clearly explain and illustrate the possible effects of prolonged sucking habit to the teeth and jaws. The dentist can also help you in encouraging your child to stop. Sometimes reminding your child that thumb sucking or pacifier use can hinder them from having straight teeth and beautiful smile is enough.

If gentle reminders are not working though, try some positive reinforcement. Consider a block of time wherein the child is not permitted to use a pacifier or thumb. Offer rewards if successful and gradually increase the “no thumb sucking and pacifier” hours. You can start this technique with your child’s TV time or any other block of time that you can easily monitor. Usually, the last stage would be bedtime. Our website provides you with motivational charts you can use to help the process. Other methods that Dr. Lindhorst encourages are the usage of “princess gloves” or hand puppets as a reminder for those times when finger sucking is the most prominent such as at bedtime. For some children band aids are enough of a reminder to make them stop. We also provide rewards to our patients who achieve this high goal and put their picture on our “wall of fame”.

Punishment however will only intensify your child’s need for comfort and security. If everything else fails, your last resort is a mouth appliance that pediatric dentists fabricate to keep your child from his or her sucking habit. These appliances are highly successful but we try not to use them unless eruption of permanent teeth is approaching and the child has not been able to quit on his or her own. We gladly provide guidance to parents and kids in this difficult process and are happy to say that our patients are very successful and we only have to do few appliances each year.