Stop Pacifiers and Thumb Sucking by Age 3 to Avoid Dental Problems
January 21, 2022
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Do you know your toddler’s thumb (or finger) sucking habit could cause buck teeth and speech problems if it continues beyond age 3? Sucking on a pacifier can have similar effects.


From birth until 4 months, your child will reflexively suck on anything that is put in his or her mouth. After 4 months of age, this reflex changes to self-soothing. Your child will often suck on a pacifier, thumb or finger when she or he is anxious or upset. Most children will stop this on their own as they learn other ways to express their emotions—such as becoming more verbal.

While it used to be thought that you had until your child’s permanent or adult teeth started coming in to break this habit, dental experts are now recognizing that changes to the mouth resulting from prolonged sucking are seen as early as age 4. Stopping the sucking habit by age 2-3 is the best recommendation.

Let’s take a look at what dental changes occur and why:

Sucking causes cheek muscles to push on your upper teeth. Children have softer bone than adults, and that bone can be molded by pressure. The upper teeth are pushed toward the center of the mouth, narrowing the dental arch and the roof of the mouth. Front teeth are often pushed forward by the pressure of the thumb or fingers. Children will often bite to one side to accommodate their thumb, fingers or pacifier.

What does that mean for your child?

Narrow dental arches mean there is less room for the teeth, leading to crowded or overlapped teeth. The tongue also has less room and that, combined with the shape of the roof of the mouth, often lead to speech problems such as lisps. Speech therapy may be required to correct these problems.

Pressure from the thumb or fingers pushes front teeth out farther, resulting in a buck-tooth appearance. Lips may not close easily over the protruded teeth, and lower teeth do not hit upper teeth while biting. In order to get a seal to swallow, your child will need to thrust his or her tongue forward into the gap between the teeth and strain to close the lips. This tongue thrust habit is very hard to break, even if the bite is corrected with braces and often requires extensive retraining so that the tongue thrust doesn’t cause recurrence of the dental problems.

So you can see, this habit can cause problems that go beyond “just needing braces” to fix. So what can you do to break the habit?

1.Enlist your child’s help

  • talk to your child about why she or he should stop. Have a dentist back you up if necessary.
  • Set limits: for example, thumb sucking is only allowed in the bedroom—some children will forego thumb sucking to continue what they’re doing.
  • For a pacifier, consider having a special ritual to give them up, such as placing them in a special spot for the pacifier fairy who will exchange them for a balloon or toy.  
  • Children want to be like those they admire. Ask “Do you think [insert your child’s hero here] would suck his/her thumb?”

2.Ask your child what you can do to help him or her stop. For some children   simply asking them “Do you know you’re sucking your thumb right now?” helps them to connect it in their brain. Others may need help finding different ways to express their emotions to you.

3.Use positive reinforcement: praise and lavish attention on your child when he or she is not thumb sucking rather than scolding when she or he does.

4.Put something over the hand that prevents the sensation of skin against gums.


  • For nap-time/night time this could be as simple as a glove or sock on the hand that is safety pinned or duct-taped to the sleeve so that the child cannot take it off easily.
  • For daytime use, band-aids are an option. (The concerns with band-aids are that they could come off and be a choking hazard and that some children will just switch to sucking a non-covered finger.)
  • There are also thumb and finger sucking gloves and guards made for this purpose.

5.Paint the thumb or fingers with a nasty tasting solution. The product Mavala Stop is one that area orthodontists recommend as being effective.

6.A dentist-made appliance: Some are called “Cribs” and have a mesh that prevents the thumb or fingers from contacting the gums. Others have a vertical gate that blocks the thumb or fingers. These appliances can interfere with your child’s eating and speech which is why they are used as a last resort.

Now that you know how sucking habits are affecting your child’s teeth, set a time to talk with him or her about it. If you need help convincing your child, call your dentist's office or if you don't have a dentist, you can establish care by calling my office at 440-960-1940.

NOTE: the information in this article is not meant to replace the clinical judgement of your healthcare professionals.