Finger Sucking in Children

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Toddler with fingers in mouth
Instead of scolding or criticizing your child to get them to stop finger sucking, Jennifer Ziemak, M.S., CCC-SLP, recommends trying positive reinforcement and helping them develop other coping and soothing skills.

Babies have a natural rooting and sucking ability, sometimes even long before birth. Because finger sucking has a soothing and calming effect, some babies will develop a habit that can be very hard to break.

The American Dental Association and American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends children should stop sucking their fingers between the ages of 2 and 4.

“Often, children will stop on their own between these ages without any negative consequences to the mouth or speech development,” says Jennifer Ziemak, M.S., CCC-SLP, rehabilitation regional manager of Speech-Language and Feeding at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “My recommendation to families is to try to eliminate the habit closer to the age of 2 in order to reduce the chance of any negative impact on speech and feeding skills,” Ziemak says.

Ziemak adds that this is a personal decision and every family must decide when it’s best for their child stop.

Complications Caused by Prolonged Finger Sucking

Finger sucking usually isn’t a concern until a child’s permanent teeth come in. However, prolonged finger sucking can lead to:

  • A tongue thrust swallow pattern and/or tongue thrust pattern for speech, including a frontal lisp.
  • Abnormal tongue resting posture.
  • Weakened tongue strength.
  • Reduced tongue range of motion (difficulty lifting the tongue and moving it from side to side), which can impact speech and feeding.
  • An open bite, which often impacts biting, chewing and speech.

Tips to Help Your Child Stop Finger Sucking

Ziemak offers families useful tips to help their child stop finger sucking, including:

  • Positive reinforcement and encouragement. Praise your child for stopping at times and reward him or her with extra playtime.
  • Consistency. Offer gentle reminders to stop.
  • Find other coping and soothing skills. Help your child learn other coping and soothing skills, such as a pillow to squeeze.
  • A chat with the child’s dentist or pediatrician. Sometimes, having your child chat with his or her doctor about why it’s important to stop finger sucking is more effective than a talk with mom or dad.
  • Don’t scold or criticize. Try not to put too much pressure on your child to break the habit. Pressure can create stress and lead to more finger sucking.

If you have tried these tips and still can’t get your child to break the habit, you might be considering devices (such as a mouth guard, glove and bad-tasting fingernail polish) to help your child stop finger sucking. Ziemak advises first discussing these methods with your child’s dentist or pediatrician.

“Positive reinforcement and sometimes providing a soothing alternative can be very effective, but it’s also important to remember that what works for one child might not work for another,” Ziemak says.

Speech-Language Therapy 

If a child’s mouth and speech have already been impacted by finger sucking, there are therapies that can help. “We offer speech therapy specifically targeting a tongue thrust swallow and/or speech pattern,” Ziemak says. 

The Johns Hopkins All Children’s Speech-Language Services offers evaluation and treatment for tongue thrust and other lip, jaw or tongue concerns related to finger sucking. This therapy focuses on correcting tongue and lip function, and helps treat facial resting postures, swallowing patterns and speech sound production with appropriate tongue placement. The ideal age range for therapy is 8 to 12 years of age, but children as young as 4 may be considered for therapy.

Johns Hopkins All Children's Speech-Language and Feeding Services

Little girl smiling in the chair

The Speech-Language and Feeding program at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, helps children develop the skills needed for successful communication, feeding and swallowing. These skills can affect all aspects of daily life, from communicating basic needs, to developing social skills, to progress in school.

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