The ins and outs of thumb sucking – Guest Post By Orofacial Myologist Rochelle McPherson

THE INS AND OUTS OF THUMB SUCKING – By Orofacial Myologist Rochelle McPherson


Thumb sucking may seem like a harmless habit and some people have described it as cute however thumb sucking is not harmless or cute. Thumb sucking can lead to dental, social and psychological problems. Prolonged and vigorous sucking can affect the normal growth and development of the face and jaw, speech and breathing. One of the most common dental problems is an anterior open bite where upon closing the mouth there is a gap between the upper and lower front teeth.


Infants have strong and pre-determined sucking reflexes. Finding an object to suck on is normal behaviour and part of their normal development and exploration. Infants can associate it with warmth and safety. Endorphins and dopamine produced in the brain during sucking give babies pleasure and comfort helping to calm them. Beyond the age of 4 however, if children are still sucking their thumb, it has become a habit.
Dental professionals generally become concerned about thumb sucking when the adult teeth begin to erupt, around 5 years of age in most children. Thumb sucking can change the shape of the roof of the mouth (palate). The forces placed on the soft growing bones of the palate by thumbs or fingers are not an ideal shape or pressure. The only thing that should be resting on the roof of the mouth is the tongue, helping to shape it into a nice horseshoe shape as the child grows. Thumb sucking generally keeps the tongue low and forward, often underneath fingers or thumbs.


Palate of an adult who sucked their thumb until mid-teens.

Many parents report that their thumb sucking children are often tired and moody, have difficulty concentrating and at times, have behavioural problems.

Most children will have a trigger associated with their thumb sucking habit. These can include a blankie, soft toy, playing with one’s hair or mother’s hair and playing with one’s own clothes. The first step is to remove the trigger in a nonthreatening and positive manner. The difficulty can be trying to separate the sucking from the trigger and most parents find it hard to tolerate the tears and tantrums that come with doing this.

It is important to discourage thumb sucking past the age of two, however we do not actively stop a child until around 5 years of age. For some children thumb sucking can be their coping mechanism.

If your child is over the age of five and expresses a desire to stop, it is definitely a good time to act. This is an active period of growth as the baby teeth start to fall out and the face is starting to grow.

Most children suck their fingers or thumbs when they are watching TV, in the car, going to bed or when they are upset. It is a subconscious behaviour, so it is important to provide positive reinforcement and motivation for your child. Negative comments can lead to a hidden guilty pleasure and in some cases cause problems with the parent/child relationship.

Some children are able to stop sucking on their own, however others may need professional guidance. An orofacial myologist is qualified to provide assistance for your child to kick the habit.

Methods that may not work successfully include nail biting varnishes, creams, thumb guards etc. What I have found is that they do not provide support or understanding for the child and their needs.

Using encouragement, support, positive reinforcement and various tools and reminders our programs are fun and engaging for children. The program is based on cognitive therapy. It is wonderful to see children proud of their achievement, as it is usually  something they have been struggling with for many years.

For more information please contact Rochelle at or



Click here to read about an Aware Parenting perspective on thumb sucking by Dr Marion Rose: Thumb Sucking – An Aware Parenting Approach.

With love, light and appreciation