Sucking and Malocclusion

Topic Overview

Thumb-sucking, finger-sucking, and pacifier use can cause malocclusion (poor bite) in young children. But when a child stops the sucking habit, the teeth naturally begin moving back to their normal positions.

Infants are born with a natural sucking reflex, and it's common for this reflex to evolve into a comforting behavior. But thumb- and finger-sucking and pacifier use for more than 4 to 6 hours in 24 hours can eventually:

  • Push the upper front teeth (incisors) outward and the lower incisors inward (overjet).
  • Prevent the incisors from coming in (erupting) completely (open bite).
  • Cause the top molars to bite inside the lower molars (cross bite).

The sooner a child stops sucking on a finger, thumb, or pacifier, the better for incoming permanent teeth. Pediatricians and pediatric dentists recommend that you take your child to see a dentist if your child is 4 years old and still has a sucking habit. If this habit lasts until age 5 or 6, your child's permanent incisors probably won't come in straight. And your child may need orthodontic treatment to help align his or her teeth.

Helping your child quit a sucking habit

Treating sucking habits in children isn't usually needed. Most children stop on their own. Most parents find it easier to wean a child from pacifier use than from thumb- or finger-sucking. Children who continue to suck their thumbs till early school age may feel pressure from their peers and may decide to stop then.

Treatment for thumb-sucking is a controversial topic. Some children are not ready or able to stop their sucking habit, despite their dentists' or parents' decision that they must. Some parents and professionals believe that when a child won't cooperate, the treatment won't be effective. It could even be traumatic and may prolong the habit. Others believe that it's sometimes necessary to try to stop the habit without the child's cooperation.

Treatment to stop a sucking habit works best if your child is involved in the treatment and agrees to try to stop. By educating your child, staying neutral, and not being critical, you can help your child get ready for sacrificing a long-held habit. Consider these tips when helping your child quit thumb-sucking or related habits.

  • Pick a low-stress period of time. Avoid a time of change or challenge, such as a move, divorce, the start of the school year, or even a new sports activity.
  • Enlist your child's dentist for providing some education about the effects of thumb-sucking.
  • Help your child put away any attachment objects that may trigger the sucking habit, such as a baby blanket or toy.
  • With your child, develop a reminder for not sucking the thumb, such as putting a mitten, a sock, an adhesive bandage, or a bitter-tasting substance on the thumb, especially at night. A bulky elastic bandage, loosely wrapped around the mid-arm, can make it difficult for the hand to reach the mouth while your child sleeps.
  • Use positive reinforcement. Compliment your child for the smallest of gains as well as the big successes.
  • Develop a reward system, such as putting a star on the calendar for each successful day. After an agreed-upon number of days, have a celebration for your child.

For more information, see the topic Thumb-Sucking.

Related Information


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer William F. Hohlt, DDS - Orthodontics

Current as ofMay 7, 2017