This seemingly pretty common part of childhood has been discouraged for many years by pediatricians — many of them cautioning parents to discourage it right away when their child starts.

It’s easier to prevent the habit from forming than trying to get a child to stop doing it once they’ve started, essentially.

But why is it a problem in the first place?

Here are the main reasons.

It Can Cause Issues With Tooth Alignment

As the first set of teeth begin to grow in, the way thumb sucking contorts the mouth, as well as the suction itself, can affect the way the teeth come in.

In some cases the teeth can come in crooked or inconsistent. This can pose challenges to biting and chewing food, but it’s also important in how your child’s mouth closes when at rest. It’s important that the upper and lower teeth align properly during the bite, and misalignment can cause jaw pain.

Thumb sucking can also lead to the development of an overbite (where the top teeth overlap the lower teeth more than normal) or an underbite.

These misalignments in the mouth can also contribute to speech impediments during development.

Thumb Sucking Past A Certain Point Can Indicate Social/Emotional Development Concerns

In the same way that sucking on a pacifier is soothing to a baby, children find thumb sucking to be a comforting action.

Early in life this is ok and even expected, and helps toddlers sleep. But, as some dental professionals point out, past the age of 4-5 a child continuing to suck their thumb could be a sign that their social or emotional wellbeing is not where it could be.

By age 5 children have learned to reason through and deal with their emotions in a healthier way, and do not feel the same degree of social confusion that they may have years earlier. When a child feels the need for pacifying behavior at this point, it can indicate they are very unsure about their environment and/or haven’t learned to deal with those feelings any other way yet.

Weaning Your Child Off The Pacifier (or Thumb)

Experts advise against verbal punishment or admonishment for a child sucking their thumb, mostly because the stress created by that circumstance can make an unsure child even more prone to comforting actions.

Suggesting alternatives, such as toys or snacks, can be helpful in moderation. Some parents say that explaining the drawbacks to continued thumb sucking to their children effectively discouraged them.

But in other cases, a child may not understand the explanations or may not find them compelling enough at that age.

When that’s the case, getting shorter pacifiers (or cutting a hole in them) can reduce the satisfaction while still allowing the action. This can slowly help the child to leave it behind, since they can still do it but it doesn’t bring them the level of comfort it once did.

When all else fails, a doctor can prescribe a bitter-tasting medication parents can put on the ends of the pacifiers, or the child’s thumb. It tastes horrible, which is a stronger deterrent for your child to continuing the behavior.