Is it okay for kids to suck their fingers while sleeping? Many parents ask themselves this question when they see that their child still hasn’t broken their thumb-sucking habit. It’s natural to have concerns about the damaging effects of a habit, especially one that a child is dependent on. However, knowing when to act can be tricky. In this article, we’ll explain when parents should step in and try to stop their child from thumb-sucking while they sleep.
It’s Perfectly Natural for Young Children
Babies have natural sucking and rooting reflexes, which can oftentimes make them want to put their fingers or thumb in their mouths. This stems from the instinct to suck, which is the mechanism that drives them to breastfeed or bottlefeed. Over time, the sensation of feeding, along with the comfort of feeling safe, full, and protected, tends to create an association between sucking and pleasure. Later on, even though the sucking is no longer nutritive, it still gives them a sense of security, not unlike a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.
For most children or babies, sucking their fingers helps them fall asleep, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as the sucking is not prolonged or vigorous, it won’t cause extensive damage to their teeth until they are older. In fact, if a child hasn’t already stopped sucking their thumb by the time they’re five years old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a treatment to end thumb-sucking.
However, some children are heavy thumb-suckers. In such a case—like when the child is sucking throughout the day or night or sucks with great force—it is imperative to treat the habit sooner. Why? Because frequent thumb sucking can cause delays in social development—a child is not sociable when they are “plugged in” with their thumb in the mouth. Furthermore, sucking can cause deformation to the jaws over time, and the fact that they rarely wash their thumbs before doing so can cause frequent illness as well. During a pandemic such as COVID-19, there’s a heightened risk of your child suck.
It’s a Problem for Older Children
Is it okay for kids to suck their fingers while sleeping? Like most difficult questions, the answer to this one is: it depends. We already know young children naturally suck their thumbs, but what happens when they grow up? Children who are five and above should not suck their thumbs as they fall asleep. By this time in their development, children have likely developed most—if not all—of their permanent teeth. If they continue to suck their fingers while they sleep, it could affect how their teeth align.
Finger- and thumb-sucking causes the teeth to shift slowly outwards. This is generally called malocclusion (overbite/open bite), and the braces necessary to repair it can cause thousands in orthodontic bills down the line.
Parents who wish to learn how to break the habit of thumb-sucking can find comfort in knowing that many brilliant people have devised helpful methods, such as the TGuard. Above all else, parents should use positive encouragement to inspire the child to break the habit. For instance, every night your child goes without sucking their thumb, reward them with a toy or treat. Generally, this will work for milder cases. If you’re looking for a more robust technique, a TGuard is highly effective.
“Aversive Taste Treatment of Finger and Thumb Sucking” from the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.