Thumbsucking is the process of sucking on the thumb for oral gratification. It is a powerful need in infants, and is a normal activity with its peak occurrence at about age two. If thumbsucking continues past age 4, malocclusion of the teeth (abnormal contact between the teeth of the upper and lower jaw) may develop.

Thumbsucking can be an important source of pleasure for an infant. Sucking can result in increased weight gain in premature infants and less crying. Thumbsucking is most common when the child is hungry or tired.

Some parents are concerned with the thumbsucking and may even try to restrain the infant or child. In most cases this is not necessary. Should thumbsucking persist, and the child is listless and apathetic the situation should be investigated. This may result from depression, boredom, isolation, or a problem between the child and parents. Malocclusion may occur if the thumbsucking continues past 4 years of age, or until permanent teeth erupt.

There is no definitive treatment for persistent thumbsucking, but there are several options you can try:

  • Use a bitter substance (be careful not to use something that may be poisonous to a small child!)  
  • Create a “contract” with the child (make a mutual agreement with goals and rewards)  
  • Paradoxical therapy (where the situation is reframed psychologically so the child no longer finds it gratifying)  
  • Dental appliances (probably best and most effective option)

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 5, 2012
by David A. Scott, M.D.

Medical Encyclopedia

  A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z | 0-9

All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.