Man holding child

Thumb or dummy sucking

All babies are naturally driven to suck – after all, their survival depends on it! But sucking isn’t always limited to the breast or bottle, with some babies sucking their thumb, fingers or a dummy for comfort outside of feeding. Ternity Group’s Nourish Baby Health Writer, Jane Barry explains the differences between thumb and dummy sucking, and which is better for your child’s health.

 

Dummy versus thumb

All babies suck to eat but some don’t stop there and like to suck as they drift off to sleep or to self soothe. As a parent or carer, you might be concerned about the impact this thumb/finger or dummy sucking will have on your child’s teeth and wonder which option is better. The good news is that neither is worse when your child is very young but there are some factors to consider.

 

Thumb sucking

Thumb sucking can affect the shape of the roof of the mouth, causing it to narrow which means the back teeth don’t align properly. Your top and bottom molars should meet to chew and grind food but if your palate is too narrow, your top molars sit inside the bottom ones creating a cross bite.

Thumb sucking can also affect the position of the front teeth. When the upper central incisors are pulled forward and don’t meet the bottom teeth this is known as an overjet (or more commonly buck teeth) which can cause health issues like mouth breathing or a dry mouth. An overjet can also affect your child’s speech because of changes in the shape of their mouth and the relationship between their tongue, palate and teeth. If your child’s teeth project forward, they’re also more at risk of damaging them if they fall over.

But the extent of these risks really depends on the way your individual child sucks. Simply resting their thumb or fingers on their tongue is very different to sucking with a lot of force and forward traction, which pulls the teeth forward.

 

Be patient

It can be very hard to stop a happy thumb sucker! If they’re tired, hungry, bored or anxious, children who thumb suck tend to place their thumb in their mouth out of habit and without too much thought.

The good news is that most children naturally stop sucking their thumb between the ages of two and four, as they find other ways to soothe and entertain themselves. Some children will continue into their preschool years but by then peer pressure can often be effective in helping them to stop. So long as the child is not sucking their thumb by the age of four or five (the sooner the better) then thumb sucking generally isn’t a problem.

 

What about a dummy?

Sucking a dummy can also cause changes to the teeth and jaws as well as tooth decay (especially if the dummy is dipped in sugary substances like honey or jam, which dentists don’t recommend!). But the big difference between sucking a thumb or fingers and a dummy is that a dummy can be thrown away, so as a parent or carer you can control its use. Studies of children who suck their thumb or fingers show they have more difficulty breaking the habit over children who suck a dummy.

The younger a child stops sucking a dummy, the more likely their teeth and jaws will correct naturally as they grow, so it’s recommended that you stop your baby having a dummy by their toddler years (if not before). Try limiting its use gradually – first just by using it at sleep times or at night, then gently taking it away when they fall asleep (to help form the habit of sleeping without sucking) and eventually stop using it completely when the time is right. It might take several attempts to completely break the habit but be patient and persistent (the first few days are likely to be the most difficult!).

 

Tips for safe dummy use

  1. Never sweeten a dummy or dip it in food or flavouring
  2. If a dummy is damaged then throw it away
  3. Never put a dummy into your own mouth or allow your child to share their dummy with someone else
  4. Try to only use a dummy for sleep times
  5. Don’t tie or secure your baby’s dummy to them (this can be a choking and strangulation hazard)
  6. Clean and sterilise your baby’s dummies daily.

 

Helping your child

If your child does need a bit of extra encouragement to stop sucking their thumb or dummy then it’s better to praise them for not doing it rather than telling them off (which may mean they try to hide the habit). Try to:

  • give lots of encouragement
  • use distractions (like a toy or cuddle)
  • show their progress (a sticker or reward chart can help)
  • use reminders (like an adhesive bandage on their thumb).

 

If you’re concerned about your child’s dummy or thumb sucking then chat to your dentist about the individual risk factors for your child.

 

To book a check-up, make an appointment at your local Health Centre or preferred dental provider.

 

 


Ternity Group supports Teachers Health members through the New Families Program.

 

Nourish Baby Health Writer Jane Barry has qualifications in general, paediatric, immunisation, midwifery and child health nursing. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Applied Science (Nursing) and has almost 35 years specialist experience in child health nursing.