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The Short- and Long-Term Effects of Thumb-Sucking

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Thumb-sucking is a natural reflex for children, providing a sense of security and comfort. However, when this habit persists beyond the toddler years, it can lead to a host of issues that impact oral, physical, and emotional health. Learn more about the potential negative impacts, including the short- and long-term effects of thumb-sucking and how to respond to prolonged thumb-sucking to prevent the most serious side effects.

When Thumb-Sucking Starts

Thumb-sucking is a completely normal habit that can start as early as in the womb for some infants. This seemingly innocuous habit is a form of self-soothing behavior for infants and toddlers. When a child sucks their thumb, it stimulates the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, releasing a barrage of neurotransmitters that produce calming and comforting effects.

This neurological response is akin to the satisfaction and happiness adults derive from indulging in a favorite hobby or food. The resultant sense of tranquility and contentment is why thumb-sucking can be so soothing and addictive for infants, leading them to carry this habit into their toddler years and potentially beyond.

When Should a Child Stop Sucking Their Thumb?

Most children naturally phase out thumb-sucking by the age of four. This is often a self-regulated process as the child gradually finds other coping mechanisms for self-soothing, like engaging in play or developing language skills. However, when thumb-sucking persists into the school years, it can lead to a range of both short- and long-term effects that parents should know.

Short-Term Effects of Thumb-Sucking

Repeated thumb-sucking can have several short-term effects, including the ones below.


The skin on the thumb can become thick, calloused, and blistered from constant contact with saliva. This makes it vulnerable to chapping and painful cracks.


Children are naturally curious, often exploring their surroundings by touch. This exploration means their hands frequently contact a variety of surfaces, picking up an assortment of germs in the process. These microorganisms, including bacteria and potentially viruses, readily stick to kids’ hands and under their nails.

When a child who has this habit constantly puts their thumb or fingers into their mouth, they unwittingly introduce these germs into their system. This constant exposure can potentially lead to an increased risk of infections, especially in the oral and respiratory tract.

Social Isolation

A truly sad effect of thumb-sucking is the isolation that can result when other children avoid or make fun of the thumb-sucking child. Likewise, a child may self-isolate to indulge in the habit because it is pleasurable and soothing. However, retreating from social interactions can have a negative effect on a child’s emotional and social development.

Long-Term Effects of Thumb-Sucking

The long-term effects of thumb-sucking are even more significant, particularly when it comes to oral health. Below are some long-term effects of note.

Malocclusion of the Teeth

The constant pressure of the thumb pushes the teeth out of alignment. This can result in an open bite where the front teeth do not meet when the mouth is closed, or an overbite where the upper teeth overlap the lower ones. These malocclusions can cause issues with chewing and speaking and may require orthodontic treatment to correct in some cases.

Changes in Facial Structure

Prolonged thumb-sucking can affect the growth of the jaw and facial bones. The repetitive pressure from the thumb can lead to changes in shape and size, potentially resulting in a more pronounced chin or misaligned jaw. These changes can impact both appearance and functionality, making it difficult for children to eat and speak properly.

Vulnerability to Teasing and Bullying

As children get older, thumb-sucking becomes less socially acceptable, making them vulnerable to teasing and bullying by their peers. This can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem and confidence, potentially leading to social anxiety and other emotional problems.

Speech Impediments

Thumb-sucking and its effects on the shape of the mouth can cause speech difficulties, particularly those affecting pronunciation, such as lisping.

Altering the Shape of the Soft Palate

Over time, thumb-sucking can even alter the shape of the soft palate, leading to changes in the child’s oral cavity. In severe cases, thumb-sucking can deform the jaw and cause overbites, leading to significant dental problems that might require braces or even surgery to correct.

Breathing Problems

The prolonged thumb-sucking habit can also cause a narrowing of the palate, leading to breathing difficulties, such as snoring, sleep apnea, or chronic mouth breathing. This can affect the child’s quality of sleep and thereby potentially impact their overall health.

Ways To Break the Thumb-Sucking Habit

Parents should step in to help stop the thumb-sucking habit when it continues past the age of four or it starts causing dental or social issues. One effective method to curb this behavior is to use positive reinforcement. Praise your child when they aren’t sucking their thumb, and consider implementing a reward system for periods of time when they refrain from the habit. It can also be helpful to provide alternatives for comfort and self-soothing. Introduce comforting items such as a favorite blanket or stuffed animal that your child can turn to instead of their thumb.

Additionally, certain products can physically deter thumb-sucking, such as the AeroThumb guard. This device, which is safe and comfortable, makes the act of thumb-sucking less satisfying and can help your child break the habit over time.

When To Visit the Pediatric Dentist or Orthodontist

By being proactive and providing support and guidance, parents can help their children break the thumb-sucking habit and ensure healthy oral and physical development. However, if you have concerns about your child’s dental health or speech development, consult with a pediatric dentist or orthodontist for personalized advice and treatment options.

While thumb-sucking may seem like an innocent habit, prolonged thumb-sucking can have significant short- and long-term effects on a child’s oral, physical, and emotional health. By understanding the potential impacts and taking proactive steps to address the habit, parents can help their children break this behavior and promote overall well-being. Remember to be patient and supportive during this process, as breaking any habit takes time and effort. With proper guidance, your child can overcome thumb-sucking and thrive in all aspects of their development.