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How long is it okay for my child to suck on a thumb or pacifier?

May 09, 2016

Why do children like to suck their thumb, finger or pacifier?

As parents, you may worry about your child sucking his or her thumb or a pacifier, but it’s important to remember that sucking is one of an infant's natural reflexes that they start even in the womb. Infants and young children may also suck on their fingers or other objects because it makes them feel happy and safe, and it helps them to learn and explore their world. It also helps them feel safe during difficult periods, such as when they are separated from their parents or if they are in a new and unfamiliar environment. Sucking may also be relaxing and, for some children, can help them get to sleep. 

When do pacifier use and thumb/finger sucking become a problem? 

When an infant or young toddler sucks their thumb or a pacifier, changes to the child’s mouth will go away after the habit subsides. Beyond two to four years of age, however, pacifier or thumb/finger sucking can affect the shape of a child's mouth or how his teeth line up. If the child stops finger sucking or using a pacifier before his permanent teeth come in, his bite may correct itself. If the bite does not correct itself, the child may need braces or some form of correction to realign the teeth and help prevent broken front teeth.  

What can you do to help stop a child's pacifier use or thumb/finger sucking habit?

Baby with Pacifier
  • The first and best thing to do is to ignore your child's habit and many times they will stop on their own.

  • Reward or praise your child when she does not suck her finger or use a pacifier. Use gentle reminders or star charts to help with this.

  • If the child is sucking because he or she is bored, try distracting them and keeping their hands busy. 

  • If there are changes in the roof of the mouth or in the way the child's teeth line up, there are devices that can be placed in the mouth that make it uncomfortable when the child sucks his thumb or uses a pacifier. You can talk to your pediatrician or a pediatric dentist about these devices.

  • Many children stop their sucking habits before they get far into school and this is usually because of fear of being teased by other children. Some children may still use the habit to keep themselves calm or help them go to sleep, but this is usually when they are alone and there is no long-term emotional or physical effect.

    The most important thing is to not put too much pressure on a child to stop the habit. If you use harsh words or punishment, then very likely the habit will stay. It is also important to have your pediatrician or pediatric dentist examine the child's mouth if they do have a sucking habit.