Finger sucking


Finger/thumb sucking is normal behaviour among most children. In fact, it has been found out that children might have started sucking their thumb in the womb, even before they were born. This behaviour is typical and is expected to stop often between the ages of 2-4 years old. The problem is that sometimes this does not stop and there are consequences especially if such a child continues with this form of behaviour into adolescence or even adulthood.

Finger/thumb sucking is the habit of putting the thumb or finger in the mouth. It is a natural reflex behaviour that can be soothing for children and may become difficult to break as a person ages. 1 in every 10 adults suck their thumbs or fingers. The exact reasons for this behaviour are somehow unknown other than releasing stress. Adults who experience this often become conscious about it in public and only do it in their comfort zone when few people are around.

Causes of finger sucking

As mentioned earlier, many children suck their fingers or thumbs but most of them stop even without intervention. Finger sucking may depend on three factors: intensity, frequency and duration.

Some children will put their thumb or finger in their mouth just to rest it usually minutes before they sleep. Others will put the finger or thumb in their mouth and press against it firmly against their upper teeth. The intensity of the second group is high and such children may have complications if they do not stop.

Children who grow to become finger suckers during adolescence and adulthood tend to suck their fingers often than the ordinary thumb-sucking child.

Lastly, a child is more likely to suck the finger later in life, if he does it for a long period as a child. For instance, a child who spends some minutes sucking the finger the entire day is less likely to suck the finger when he grows, unlike a child who spends hours sucking the thumb or finger every day.

If these behaviours are observed in a child, then there can be an intervention to help the child quit especially during the ages of 2-4.

Some of the things a person can do to help children quit sucking their thumb or fingers include:

· Have a conversation with your child. Some kids do not understand that their behaviour may affect their dental health later in life. Kindly explain to the child some possible harm that may occur to them if they continue. This will depend on the child's age and the level of reasoning even at that time.

· Reward them when they make an effort to stop this behaviour. This might motivate them to stop. Some kids may hide them and behave well only in the presence of people. To use this approach, a thorough observation should be made.

· Use distractions. It is good to observe the child's sucking patterns and distract them during such a period. For instance, if the child normally sucks the thumb or fingers in the evening before bed, then you can give the child a snack or water to drink during such period. The child might focus on the food or activity and somehow get distracted.

· Apply bitter substances on their thumbs or fingers. This can be achieved by applying a food substance that the kid doesn't like or bitter nail polish on their fingers and thumb. This is not usually advised since it is unpleasant but it usually works.

After all these, if a child does not stop and enter into adolescence and adulthood, then it becomes stressful.

Reasons why adults suck their thumb/finger

Some reasons why some adults go on to suck their thumbs and fingers are:

1.       Sucking is a form of relaxation for them. Sucking helps them to calm down- release stress and anxiety on their own.

2.       Sucking the thumb or finger is an escape from reality. Some adults who suck their thumbs or fingers usually had a traumatic experience during their childhood. Hence, sucking the thumb/finger makes them feel better and forget what happened to them.

3.       People who have a condition called trichotillomania- the urge to pull out their body hair, tend to suck their thumbs or fingers.

4.       Individuals with a condition termed age regression are also likely to suck their thumbs or fingers. Age regression occurs when someone reverts to a younger state of mind. They act less intelligently than their age and may exhibit juvenile behaviours such as thumb-sucking or whining.

5.       Some adults do it involuntarily during stressful conditions.

Effects of thumb/finger sucking

Thumb/finger sucking does not have any serious effect in children with baby teeth. However, when the baby teeth are replaced with permanent ones, then this behaviour may cause some problems. This is because, the teeth present are the permanent ones, whatever is done to it will remain the same. Below are a few:

1. Problems with tooth alignment. Because the finger presses on the tooth regularly, it gives it a different direction to grow rather than the normal way. Hence, the teeth don't align(grow in the same direction). They may be disorganized. The upper teeth may not complement the lower teeth. You will close your mouth but your mouth will look full. This condition is commonly called bite- Occlusal disease.

This can be corrected by getting braces or by putting an end to thumb/finger sucking.

2. Dental occlusion- Misaligned teeth.

« Anterior open bite: This condition occurs when the upper and lower teeth begin to slant outward so they don't touch when the mouth is closed.

« Crossbite: It occurs when the upper teeth bite inside the lower teeth. It can happen on either one or both sides of your jaw- it can also affect the front and the back teeth.

« Spacing. This is literally spacing between the teeth. It can happen between two or more teeth.

These conditions may affect facial appearance.

3. Changes to the roof of the mouth. This refers to the upper surface of the mouth above the tongue. Thumb/finger sucking may cause it to become indent and rounded inward. It may also become sensitive to touch and sensation.

4. Oral infection. The hands pick up germs every day. If a person does not wash the hands before sucking the finger/thumb- which is normally the case, the person will introduce the germs into the body and may cause an infection.

5. Problems with the thumb. Long-term thumb sucking may lead to a change in appearance( dry, cracked), shape ( thinner and elongated) and form callouses( hard structures of the thumb).

6. Difficulties with speech. The changes within the structure of the teeth will cause a distortion of words. For example, one may pronounce "s" and "z" as "the"-A condition called lisping. They say 'thing' instead of 'sing'

How to stop

1. Identify the situations that trigger this behaviour. If it is stress and anxiety, find other alternatives such as exercise, deep breathing and meditation. Covering the thumb/finger with a foul-tasting substance may work. Keeping the hands busy with anything(stress ball) and lastly, chewing gum when you feel the urge to suck the finger/thumb.

2. If all these do not work,  consider seeing a dentist. They may provide other alternatives.


Thumb/finger sucking is a condition among children. If it is not checked, the child will grow with it into adulthood. There are so many unpleasant consequences that may even affect the physical health and self-esteem of such individuals. Hence, all who experience this condition must make an effort to stop.


  1. Adult Thumb. Retrieved from
  2. Mayo clinic. Thumb sucking. Retrieved from


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