Consequences of Thumb Sucking

Humans are born with many habits, and impulses built into us. One of these is the grip reflex — put your finger in the palm of a baby’s hand and see how quickly (and how tightly!) they hold onto it. There are certainly consequences for thumb sucking, one of the most difficult habits for young children to break .


All babies are born with the instinct to suck on something. This obviously helps with breastfeeding but also results in babies exploring the world and putting everything they can into their mouths.


Thumbs are super convenient and available for babies to suck on, and so naturally get on the receiving end of their habit. Most babies wean themselves off thumb sucking around 6 months. It can be a reflexive, calming action in children up to around 3 years of age — if they’re tired, restless, or stressed. Over five years of age, thumb sucking can be a sign of emotional disorders or problems.


From a dental perspective, persistent, prolonged thumb sucking is not ideal. It can drastically affect the growth and development of a child’s teeth and mouth. This can result in needing braces or orthodontics to correct in the future.

3 Major Side Side Effects for Children who Suck Their Thumb

The 3 most common consequences for thumb sucking are as follows:

Open Bite

Malocclusion is the technical term for when teeth don’t sit together properly, in a way that’s noticeable when the mouth is closed. It’s the most serious side effect of prolonged thumb sucking.

Open bite is when the top and bottom front teeth project outward. Even when the mouth is closed, the teeth do not touch.

Correcting open bite requires extensive orthodontic care to shift the teeth back into the ideal position properly. It can also complicate other conditions which may also require orthodontic intervention.


An overbite is similar to an open bite in that the front teeth project forward. The key difference is that in an overbite, only the top teeth are misplaced. When the mouth is closed, the top teeth sit over the bottom teeth rather than touching normally.

Overbites affect the shape of the mouth and smile. Mild overbites generally aren’t worrisome, but extreme overbites will require braces and orthodontic treatment. Some overbite cases require headgear and other specialist devices as the overlap prevents the proper placement of brackets.

Speech Impediments

Changing the development of the teeth and jaw will also affect how a child eats and speaks. They may develop difficulties saying hard consonants like “D” and “T,” or even develop a lisp.

Speech therapy can help, but only to a point. Speech problems which are caused by the physical relationship of the teeth to the tongue can be difficult, if not impossible, to correct solely through therapy.

How To Help Your Child Stop Thumb Sucking

Trying to get your child to resist such an intrinsic reflex as thumb sucking is one of the hardest challenges of being a parent. Children use thumbs and pacifiers to calm themselves, and many children develop habits where they can’t sleep — or stay asleep — if they don’t have something to suck on. Removing this comfort from a child is no easy task.

Unfortunately, if you don’t stop those habits, the consequences can be quite pronounced, you’ll have to deal with the consequences of thumb sucking.

A common method that parents can use to help their children change these behaviors is by setting strict limits around when a pacifier can be used. For example, they can only have the pacifier when they go to bed at night, not during the day.

Covering hands with socks and securing them (gently!) with tape can also help reduce thumb sucking at night. It prevents the child from getting their thumb out to suck on as they sleep.

Positive reinforcement is always recommended. You can implement a rewards chart for children to chart and see their progress. Having a positive attitude and praising your child for not sucking their thumb — rather than shaming them when they do — can also help speed up the process.

Sometimes more direct or drastic methods are needed, unfortunately. You can ask your dentist to prescribe you a bitter-tasting medication. This can be coated on the child’s hand or pacifier to help discourage them from putting them in their mouth. Every time they do, they’ll get a mouth full of bitter taste.

It is not recommended to find a DIY bitter-tasting solution! Many household items that taste bitter can also be full of harmful chemicals which should not be ingested or placed on the skin. Prescription medication is much safer.

One of the best ways to help, however, has nothing to do with thumbs or pacifiers. Children often use sucking to calm themselves, as we’ve said. They may be uncomfortable, insecure, or anxious. Sometimes the best way to get kids to stop sucking their thumb is to listen to their needs and make sure they feel secure, loved, and supported. This reduces their sucking-triggering anxiety and helps them more easily transition away from the habit.