The Speech Consequences of Failing to Prevent Thumb Sucking

The Speech Consequences of Failing to Prevent Thumb Sucking

Although many children will naturally stop sucking their thumbs between ages 3 and 6, for some children, this can become a long lasting habit that impacts their future oral health. Many people have heard of the potential problems arising from misaligned teeth that result from persistent, vigorous thumb sucking. What some parents may be less familiar with, however, is the ability of thumb sucking to cause speech challenges. Helping children to stop thumb sucking can be very beneficial for their future.

How thumb sucking impacts oral development

When thumb sucking persists beyond the early years of child development, it can impact the maturation of certain muscles in the mouth including the position of the tongue. The thumb can also impact the transition from the tongue thrust of early childhood to a mature swallow. In most children, this transition is complete by age 9, but the regular sucking can slow down this process. This will then make it harder for children to properly pronounce certain sounds, particularly those that are made using the tip of the tongue and palatal sounds. This includes the following:







/sh, ch,j (as in jam),zh (as in measure)

Helping children break their thumb sucking habit

The easiest way to avoid speech problems later is to help children stop their thumb sucking before it reaches the point of hindering development. We recommend parents guide their children by:

  • helping them find alternate sources of comfort to replace the thumb

  • praising children when they manage to avoid sucking their thumbs

  • using visual aids, such as sticker charts, to motivate children to avoid thumb sucking

  • offering rewards, such as new books, when goals are met

These forms of positive reinforcement can help children break the habit in a healthy and affirming manner.

When to be concerned about oral development

Parents should not immediately panic if their children still regularly suck their thumbs into their preschool years. Slight deviations in oral development generally do not cause speech problems. If the child is still regularly and vigorous sucking their thumbs as they prepare to head into kindergarten, however, it might be a good idea to speak with a professional about how to help the child stop the habit.

We also recommend that parents concerned about speech development regularly take their child to the pediatrician and dentist. These trained professionals can generally tell if there are any structural problems forming in the mouth that might cause speech problems. Should you see signs of developing problems, serious oral challenges can often still be avoided with immediate intervention.

For many children, thumb sucking is nothing more than a form of self-soothing to use through the baby and early toddler years. When it extends well into the preschool years and beyond, however, it can have serious effects on oral health and speech development. We recommend you familiarize yourself with these potential problems so that you can help your child develop healthy habits while also providing the monitoring necessary to avoid complications later.

What Does a Speech Therapist Do?

What Does a Speech Therapist Do?

A speech therapist and his or her therapy program is crucial to the treatment of individuals who have language and communication disorders. A comprehensive speech therapy program implemented by a proficient speech therapist can help clients not only improve their language and communication skills, but also help them build confidence.

Speech Therapist Education and Role

It is important to know what education a speech therapist has and what a speech therapist does to understand the value of speech therapy for an individual with language and communication disorders. These individual clients can be of any age, from pre-school children to elderly adults.

Speech Therapy Education

First, a speech and language pathologist (SLP) typically has a master’s degree in language and communication disorders. The SLP also completes field experience under clinical supervision for the designated number of hours to satisfy the degree requirements. The SLP must also obtain what is known as the Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association before he or she begins working independently as a speech pathologist. The SLP must also be licensed to work in his or her respective state.

Some speech therapists work under the clinical supervision of speech pathologists as speech language pathology assistants (SLPAs). They typically must possess an associate degree in education with a concentration in language and communication disorders. Like the SLP, the SLPA must also complete a designated number of hours in the field to satisfy degree requirements and to gain experience.

Speech Therapist Role

When considering the potential role of a speech therapist, we might wonder what a speech therapist does. Here are the basic responsibilities of a speech therapist.

Assessments. One of the first tasks of a speech therapist is to complete an assessment of the client. The assessments determine what type of difficulties or disorders the client may have. These speech difficulties can range from not being able to speak at all, to various language or communication disorders, such as receptive (hearing and understanding words) language disorders and expressive (forming and speaking words) language disorders. Some clients also have swallowing disorders, or other physical difficulties such as cleft palate, that interfere with speaking.

Treatment Plans Creation. The speech therapist then creates an individualized treatment plan to address the needs of the client as identified through the assessment. The treatment plan typically describes the type of therapeutic exercises and activities, number of repetitions of certain exercises and activities, and frequency of sessions, as well as objectives, goals, and anticipated outcome within a specified timeframe.

Treatment Plan Implementation. Next, the speech therapist holds therapy sessions to implement the treatment plan. The sessions are usually in 20- to 30-minute increments but can go up to 60 minutes, depending on the specific client’s needs. The sessions often include a variety of activities requiring the client to practice speaking or communicating.

Testing. At various increments, the speech therapist conducts additional or follow-up testing, to determine the effectiveness of the therapy. The follow-up testing also helps the therapist to modify the treatment plan, if necessary, for optimum outcomes for the client receiving therapy.

Interaction with clients, parents, and caregivers. The speech therapist must have good people skills and genuine compassion, not only to work with clients, but also to interact with parents and caregivers.

Paperwork. As in many jobs, paperwork is a must for speech therapists. They must therefore be well-organized, detail-oriented, and be able to write well to efficiently document their clients’ progress and any additional treatment needs.

Ultimate Goal of Speech Therapy

So what does a speech therapist do? Ultimately, he or she seeks to improve a client’s functionality in language and communication skills through a variety of strategic therapeutic activities and exercises. It’s primarily about improving a client’s quality of life.

4 Easy Speech Therapy Exercises Kids Can Do At Home

4 Easy Speech Therapy Exercises Kids Can Do At Home

In addition to participating in speech therapy sessions with a speech therapist, kids can also do speech therapy exercises at home with the assistance of parents, siblings, or others willing to help. These exercises can reinforce what the speech therapist does during therapy sessions by strengthening and transferring those newly learned skills at home.

Matching Games

Like most kids, those with speech and language challenges can benefit from playing matching games. These typically consist of some type of large card depicting various images, and then separate cards with the individual matching images. The individual cards could be face up, or face down for a concentration type of game.

These matching games help with eye-to-hand coordination, as well as critical-thinking skills. For kids with speech and language challenges, playing matching games can help them develop improved speech and communication skills. Parents or others in the home can encourage kids to say the names of the objects, describe them, or otherwise practice communicating attributes of the images on the cards.

Picture Cards

The use of picture cards is a key aspect of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) developed in 1985 by Dr. Andrew Bondy and speech pathologist, Lori Frost, CCC-SLP. Picture cards are considered a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

The basic process involves asking the child to place in the hand of a “communication partner” (such as a parent or sibling) a card with a picture of a desired item, such as a favorite toy or food, or an activity, such as watching TV. The communication partner then rewards the child with the item or the activity. Eventually, the communication partner encourages the child to say the words identifying the items, and compose sentences or questions including those words.

In the home, parents could take pictures or ask their kids to draw pictures of items in the home, or depicting activities. Parents could then create picture cards and laminate them, and engage their kids in the exercise of communicating and speaking using these picture cards.

Picture Games

Parents can also use picture cards to create a variety of picture games. Kids can practice saying the words depicted on the cards.

For instance, parents could create a game using picture cards of various objects, as well as cards with a big “X” and cards with smiley faces. This could be a “yes-no” game in which the parents ask questions, and the kids respond with “X” cards for no answers and smiley face cards for yes answers. One picture, for example, might be of the sun and the question would be if the sun is hot; the child should respond with the smiley face, obviously, for a yes answer.

You can use picture cards loaded with your target sound to play “Go Fish” or “Memory”.  These two very well known games can be used to work on sounds at the word level, phrase level, or structured sentence level.  Of course conversation during these games can target the sounds in a more unstructured situation.


Kids usually love puzzles and they can serve some of the same functions as the matching games. In addition to eye-to-hand and fine motor coordination, puzzles are another component in speech therapy exercises used to encourage kids to speak and identify shapes, colors, and images depicted on the puzzle pieces and completed puzzles.

Practice, Repetition, and Reinforcement

Practice might not make “perfect” for kids involved in speech therapy, but repetition of these and other speech therapy exercises provide reinforcement of valuable speech, language, and communication skills. In addition, kids engaged in these exercises might not even realize they are learning and overcoming speech problems even while they are playing games at home.  Practice at home may not make perfect during the practice but it does help it become permanent.