"Plug in, Wyatt. Just plug in." This became my family's daily mantra when my youngest brother became fussy or agitated. Our declarations, often made out of both habit and exasperation, were made in the hopes of encouraging him to sooth himself by sucking his fingers (specifically, his right middle and index finger while placing his other hand on his bellybutton). Of course, the solution became less viable as he transitioned into preschool, and eventually, like most toddler phases, he ceased the ritual altogether. My family, probably much like yours, recognized the benefit (if only temporary) of a child's ability to sooth himself by sucking his fingers.

However, as much as we accepted this unique habit as a phase, my parents, like many others, remained concerned over the long-term consequences. Will it affect his jaw development? Will he have an issue with speech? When will he stop? Our encouragement of Wyatt to "plug in" quickly became synonymous with premonitions of braces and headgear. But as the dentists I recently spoke with assured me, thumb sucking doesn't have to be the big, bad habit you need to break. And their biggest piece of advice for parents is, "don't panic."

What is Thumb Sucking?

The habit of children sucking their thumbs is far from uncommon. As Dr. Erica Caffrey, DDS, who practices Pediatric Dentistry in Kensington, explains, "It's not uncommon to see a thumb-sucking baby in the womb during the ultrasound." In fact, the habit is so common that a 2012 article in "Psychology Today" described a child's digit habit as the "earliest addiction."

Despite our palpable anxiety at the site of our little one's thumbs in his mouth, dentists explain that the habit is not necessarily harmful in early childhood. Instead, the self-soothing that children experience from thumb sucking can be beneficial. Dr. Susan A. Miller, Ed.D, concludes that preschoolers will typically develop rituals, like thumb sucking, because they bring them comfort. Indeed, Dr. Rob Delarosa, DDS, a practicing dentist and President of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), has found that in his experience the majority of his young patients have digit habits which are harmless. He says, "A small percentage of children have thumb sucking habits that become troublesome."

Long-Term Consequences

Despite the normalcy of a child's early digit habits, there is the potential for long-term consequences. The AAPD says that children can begin to develop dental issues when their permanent teeth begin to rupture. Dr. Delarosa explains it simply as form following function. As a result, the constant pushing of the thumb between the teeth can cause the jaw to improperly develop and result in an open-bite. Moreover, Dr. Sally Cram, a Washington, D.C. dentist specializing in periodontics and implants, describes how the constant pressure from thumb sucking can also change the shape of the roof of the mouth.

But before you rush to examine your child's teeth, Dr. Delarosa says that there are three factors to consider to determine if your child's digit habit may be troublesome.

  1. Intensity: How hard is your child sucking on his thumb? Can you hear him sucking on his fingers in the other room?

  2. Frequency: Is your child only reverting to sucking his thumb when he is tired, sleepy or agitated? Or is your child sucking on his fingers regularly throughout the day?

  3. Duration: How long has the digit habit been occurring? Is it continuing with the same frequency despite the fact that his permanent teeth are beginning to rupture?

If you find that your child is continuing to suck his thumb or the behavior is becoming more intense, consulate with your child's dentist.

Stopping the Habit

The most persistent question that dentists hear from parents is, When and should they stop their child's thumb sucking habit? The AAPD typically recommends treatment for thumb sucking after a child has turned 5 years of age. The dental professionals also agree that the most important consideration to make is how you can intervene in the most positive way. Dr. Caffrey cautions parents to refrain from nagging or embarrassing their child. She says, "It may very well backfire and push the child to suck more." Instead, one should focus on positive reinforcement. If you know your child primarily sucks his thumb during bedtime, consider adding soothing music and books as part of the routine. You can even create a reward system with small treats and prizes.

Reminder therapy can also work well for older children who are feeling the social pressure to break the habit. Placing a band-aid on the thumb or covering it with bitter nail polish can alert children when they begin to place their thumb or fingers in their mouth.

Consult Your Child's Dentist

Thumb sucking can be a bothersome habit to break, but it doesn't have to be a battle. Don't hesitate to speak with your child's dentist. Whether your child's thumb sucking is temporary or long-term, they will be able to provide expert solutions and, if necessary, interventions. As for Wyatt, his finger sucking habit came to an end when he needed both hands to play t-ball. A young adult with a beaming smile, he's now often referred to as the "smiling Carter." My family and I can't help but feel a sense of melancholy as we look back at Wyatt's baby pictures. For just like all phases of childhood, his finger sucking days were fleeting, but none-the-less woven into the fabric of his childhood.