Pacifying Baby, Dummy or Thumb?

baby sucking thumb

Thumb and dummy sucking are common in many children. My first daughter never had a dummy or sucked her thumb, and has never shown any interest in doing so. However on our first night home after my wife delivered our second daughter it became very obvious that if we didn’t put a dummy in her mouth then the thumb was going to take up residency instead! We opted for a dummy, partly as it’s easier to get rid of a dummy later on, and partly as the sucking of a finger or thumb can lead to the finger or thumb becoming thinner and less developed than it would otherwise be.

There are different types of dummy on the market – some calling themselves “orthodontic soothers” or similar. These tend to have an oval cross section – giving less separation of the upper and lower jaws when bitten on, which will  hopefully leave the front teeth less apart – these are manufacturers claims, but seem to make sense.

Thumb and dummy sucking up to two and half to three years old is unlikely to cause too many long-term complications. However if it continues past this age it can cause the front teeth to be pushed apart – so only the back teeth can bite together. This can also lead to mouth breathing as the lips do not sit together at rest, and meaning you are much more likely to end up needing braces etc. to correct bite problems later in life.

Stopping these habits can be very tricky though. Various techniques have been suggested, mostly involving a combination of carrot and stick. Writing a letter to the dummy fairy and leaving the dummies out to be collected, followed the next morning by a present for being a big girl/boy is one approach. Star charts and stickers can also motivate. Explain that this is about being a big girl/big boy – much like potty training and no longer wearing nappies. You know your child, and can gauge when you feel ready to try and change this habit, but the longer it goes on for the more firmly it becomes entrenched and the harder it will be to break. It is not going to be easy, and will most probably cause tears and upset – I’m not looking forward to going through this with my youngest! But most parents report that after a few nights it all settles down and life settles down again into a new pattern.

Thumb sucking is obviously harder to tackle as amputation is not an option! Most thumb sucking will happen when the child is hungry, tired or upset (usually because they are hungry and tired…) Attempt to remind the child why they shouldn’t be thumb sucking, and sometimes a plaster around the thumb, or using a nail varnish designed to stop chewing of the nails is a good reminder – again, persistence is the key.

So there you have it – everything you always wanted to know about teeth, but were too stressed/shattered/rushing to ask. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice from your dentist – consider taking the toothbrush with you at your child’s next check-up if you’re unsure on technique etc. and remember – you only have to clean the ones you want to keep…


Iain Soulsby BDS, BSc (Hons.)

About the author: Iain Soulsby studied Dentistry and Psychology at Guys Hospital Dental School, University of London. He works at Hayes Dental Surgery in Bromley, South East London (020 8462 1347) .

Iain is father to Emily and Charlotte (6 and nearly 2 at the time of writing) He would like more time with his family, more time with his patients and more time to sleep – this isn’t going to be possible.

Photo accreditation: syauqee mohamad (flickr)

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