Gentle Ways to Stop Nighttime Thumbsucking
How do I stop my 4-year-old from sucking his thumb at night? His front teeth are starting to be affected.
Your statement “his front teeth are being affected” is a red flag that supports your mother’s intuition that something must be done now to stop the nighttime thumbsucking. Once upon a time, we did not worry much about thumbsucking because kids do eventually outgrow it. But now, pediatricians know that nighttime thumbsucking that affects the teeth must be immediately addressed. And it’s not just so that a child’s front teeth look nice!
OSA Caused by Daytime and Nighttime Thumbsucking
It is especially important for a growing child to enjoy healthy dental alignment. When the upper teeth protrude a lot over the lower teeth the dental alignment is affected so much that it narrows the airway so that a child cannot naturally get enough air, especially at night while sleeping. This causes the child to become a mouth-breather. This further harms dental alignment and leads to a very commonly overlooked problem in children – obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Obstructive Sleep Apnea is caused by not getting enough air while sleeping. OSA leads to disrupted sleep, being tired, and results in not being able to learn well at school. Therefore, the timing of your question is perfect. You want to get this corrected before your child enters kindergarten.
Your four-year-old probably enjoys nighttime thumbsucking as a relaxing tool to get him off to sleep. Therefore, do not worry that it signifies some behavioral issue. Here are some tips to protect those pretty teeth from protruding and get your child’s thumb out of his mouth at night.
Play Show and Tell
Teach your son what is happening at night. Take your child’s index finger and rub it along the upper teeth to show him what the thumbsucking is doing to his “handsome teeth.” Have him run his finger along the edge of his top row of teeth so he can feel the space between the upper teeth and lower teeth. End your demonstration on a nice note, “You have such a handsome smile. We need to keep it that way.”
Change Bedtime Routines
Because nighttime thumbsucking causes the most severe dental problems since it is more intense and prolonged, help him drift off to sleep with favorite songs, lullabies, or prayers. This can take a while, depending on how quickly he drifts off. It may take longer when he cannot use his thumb to soothe himself off to sleep. Of course, do not let him suck his thumb to drift off to sleep. That will program him to put his thumb back in his mouth when he wakes up. Check on him before you go to bed and make sure his thumb is not in his mouth.
“Tooth Teddy” to Combat Nighttime Thumbsucking
Another trick that we have found helpful is to give him the motivation to make this change. Take him to the toy store and let him pick out a big teddy bear to sleep with. Wrapping his arms around the bear will keep his thumb from reaching his mouth. Give the teddy bear a name like “Tooth Teddy.” If the thumb still finds its way around Tooth Teddy into his mouth when you check on him before you go to sleep, ease the thumb out of his mouth.
Visit a Pediatric Dentists
We refer to habitual nighttime thumb-suckers as “all night suckers,” those children who strongly suck their thumbs and push against their front teeth all night long. In this case, it may help to consult your child’s dentist and make an appointment, so the dentist can reinforce what Mom and Dad say. Pediatric dentists have a lot of experience with playing “show and tell” to convince children to stop daytime and nighttime thumbsucking.
Find the Thumbsucking Trigger
If your child is also a daytime thumbsucker, keep those little thumbs busy. When hands are bored little thumbs find their way to the mouth. Identify the trigger, what situations set off the thumbsucking. Is he tired, bored, stressed, or upset? Once you have identified the trigger, try to distract him into more tooth-friendly activities such as playing a game or a substitute habit, such as holding and squeezing his thumb or hiding his thumb behind his back.
As I have said in many of my MWM articles, take advantage of teachable moments. If you find him sucking his thumb when he’s stressed, start teaching stress-management and relaxation techniques early, such as the attitude-of-gratitude – “I am thankful for…” and deep breathing: “Take a deep breath and count to five.” Children can come up with a substitute behavior that they can use to help solve a problem. Do some brainstorming and see what other ideas he can come up with. When something can be his idea it will have better traction.
Read more on how to stop thumbsucking/nighttime thumbsucking.
Martha is the mother of Dr. Bill’s eight children, a registered nurse, a former childbirth educator, a La Leche League leader, and a lactation consultant. Martha is the co-author of 25 parenting books and is a popular lecturer and media guest drawing on her 18 years of breastfeeding experience with her eight children (including Stephen with Down Syndrome and Lauren, her adopted daughter). Martha speaks frequently at national parenting conferences and is noted for her advice on how to handle the most common problems facing today’s mothers with their changing lifestyles. Martha is able to connect with both full-time, stay-at-home mothers and working mothers because she herself has experienced both styles of parenting. Martha takes great pride in referring to herself as a “professional mother” and one of her favorite quips when someone voices their concern about her having eight children in an already populated world is: “The world needs my children.”