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ADL Health

Health Care & Fitness Advice
Thumb Sucking

The Negative Impact of Thumb Sucking on Speech

Thumb sucking and the use of a dummy/pacifier doesn’t mean your child is destined for kids’ speech therapy sessions. In most cases, it’s a short-term practice that young children rely on for self-calming and will grow out of by the time they are three or four years old.

However, children that don’t grow out of thumb sucking are shown to be more at risk of speech problems, according to a 2009 study by US and Chile researchers.

Thumb sucking can seem harmless enough, but long-term, it may result in a myofunctional condition. This condition is when the muscles at the front of the mouth, particularly around the lips, are used, but others, such as the masseter muscles, are not.

This condition, as well as a forward carriage of the tongue, can lead to a detrimental impact on teeth alignment, occlusion, and oral muscle development, not to mention persistent tongue thrust.

What is Tongue Thrust?

Tongue thrust is a swallowing pattern that occurs during early childhood. A mature swallowing pattern gradually replaces that tongue thrust around the age of nine. However, children who suck their thumb are at risk of this swallowing pattern continuing, which can lead to distortion in speech, particularly with tongue tip sounds.

The use of words with S, Z, T, L, D, and N can all be impacted. If other oral structures are affected, the combination of S and DZ sounds may also prove challenging for children as they develop. Fortunately, children often respond well to kids’ speech therapy to combat speech development issues brought about by prolonged thumb sucking.

How Can I Stop My Child from Sucking Their Thumb?

Thumb sucking is more common around the ages of 6-7 months, but can also be a common habit among 2-4-year-olds. Many experts recommend trying to address thumb-sucking habits by the age of three, but the American Academy of Paediatrics says expert assistance can be requested if your child is still sucking their thumb by age five.

If you’re worried about your child’s speech and oral development, then there are a few ways you can try to encourage them to stop sucking their thumb. The first is positive reinforcement. Praise them for going extended periods without putting their thumb in their mouth. Set small but achievable goals, such as no thumb sucking an hour or two before bedtime. Sticker charts can also be an excellent way to reward children.

It may also help if parents can identify why their child is sucking their thumb so they can try and avoid those triggers. Do they do it for comfort or as a response to stress? Are they nervous or uncertain? A stuffed toy can become a replacement comfort item.

Sometimes, children will suck their thumb without thinking about it, but how you react can make all the difference to your success rate of getting them to stop. Rather than scold or ridicule, offer your child a gentle reminder that they are sucking their thumb and offer them a fun activity to do instead.

Children use thumb sucking as a self-calming mechanism, but it can quickly become a habit that has long-term speech and oral development effects. If you worry that your child’s thumb-sucking habit has impacted their speech, then see your GP for a referral to a kids’ speech therapy specialist without delay.