Thumb Sucking is No Friend to Speech Development

Why Thumb Sucking is No Friend to Speech Development

Parents always want what is best for their children: to be healthy, happy, and well… children!  Thumb sucking is a natural behavior that can help a child soothe himself.  That’s right, thumb sucking is normal behavior; however, there is an age at which parents should seek alternatives and help their child break the habit.  

Continue reading for descriptions of thumb sucking: what is it, why it can be bad, and how to help your child break an exhausting habit.

What is thumb sucking?

It goes without saying that thumb sucking occurs when a child, well, sucks her thumb.  This behavior is natural and can help soothe a baby, often before she is born.  After birth, this behavior continues as a natural part of the child’s development.  It helps infants explore their environment as well as provide a source of comfort.  This behavior often stops on its own, usually before the child begins preschool.

What could happen if my child continues to suck his or her thumb?

According to Dr. Thomas Willingham, DMD, in Trussville, Alabama, if thumb sucking is a continued habit past the age of 3-4 years old, a child could develop an “open bite” (see Fig. 1), meaning that the top front teeth do not meet with the bottom front teeth when the mouth is closed. This situation, as well as any required treatment, could be monitored by your child’s dentist. 

Additionally, your child may need to see a speech therapist for training on placement for certain speech sounds, such as S and Z.  While producing these sounds, the tongue stays behind the “closed wall” of the top and bottom teeth, as seen in Figure 2.  If the child has an open bite, the tongue will have a less defined place to rest during these sounds and could create a “slushy” quality to the sound.  The child’s mouth might look something like Figure 3 when producing his S or Z sound.

If you feel that your child has trouble making the S or Z sound, or any other sound, it may be time to seek the help of a speech therapist for an evaluation.  Following the evaluation, the speech therapist may recommend starting therapy and will provide you with the information you need to help correct any errors they hear within your child’s speech.

According to the Mouth Healthy website, young children often suck their thumbs when they feel anxious. It may be beneficial to determine if your child might be feeling anxiety then determine what might be causing the anxiety in your child.  Doing so may help decrease the use of sucking as a comfort.  It may help your child to introduce another activity to replace thumb sucking, such as hugging a favorite toy or listening to a song.  If you cannot figure out what might be causing your child’s anxiety, it may be time to seek the help of your pediatrician to try to identify the cause.

My child is still younger than 4 years old. What can I do to keep this from causing these issues? 

If your child is still within the typical age of thumb sucking, never fear. Children often can break the habit on their own. All you need to do is ignore the behavior. If at 4 or 5 years old, your child is still sucking his or her thumb, use positive reinforcements such as praise for not sucking his or her thumb. It may also help your child to use a sticker chart if that is rewarding to your child.  Praise and other positive reinforcements are often more effective than negative ones, such as adding bitterant on the child’s thumbs. If the positive reinforcement you’re using isn’t working, try different techniques to see which one works best for your child. 

As always, if you have any concerns regarding the health and development of your child, speak to your child’s pediatrician for counseling and advice. 



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