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.