Generally, it's normal and healthy for infants to suck their thumbs, fingers, pacifiers or toys. Object sucking gives children a sense of emotional security and comfort. However, if thumb sucking continues beyond the age of 5 -- when the permanent teeth begin to come in -- dental problems may occur. Depending on the frequency, intensity, and duration of the sucking, the teeth can be pushed out of alignment, causing them to protrude and create an overbite. The child may also have difficulty with the correct pronunciation of words. In addition, the upper and lower jaws can become misaligned and the roof of the mouth might become malformed.
Tips to help your child stop thumb sucking
First, remember that thumb sucking is normal and should not be a concern of parents unless the habit continues as the permanent teeth begin to emerge.
The child must make the decision on their own to stop sucking their thumb or fingers before the habit will cease. To help toward this goal, parents and family members can offer encouragement and positive reinforcement. Because thumb sucking is a security mechanism, negative reinforcement (such as scolding, nagging, or punishments) are generally ineffective -- making children defensive and driving them back to the habit. Instead, give praise or rewards for time successfully avoiding the habit. Gradually increase the time needed without sucking to achieve the reward. The younger the child, the more frequent the rewards will need to be given. For children who want to stop, cover the finger or thumb with a band-aid as a reminder. Take the thumb or finger out of the mouth after the child falls asleep.
To help older children break the habit, parents should try to determine why their child is doing it -- find out what stresses your child faces and try to correct the situation. Once the problem is gone, the child often finds it is easier to give up sucking. If this doesn't work, there are dental appliances a child can wear in the mouth to prevent sucking. These appliances are cemented to the upper teeth, sit on the roof of the mouth and make thumb sucking harder and therefore less pleasurable.