Finger-sucking—How to Prevent it from Affecting Speech

Finger-sucking habits can start as early as 6 months in babies. The majority of infants and toddlers with a sucking habit prefer to suck their thumb, but using the index and middle finger together is also common.

Whilst many parents welcome this as an alternative to a dummy obsession, others are aware that any form of sucking habit can lead to dental and speech issues in later childhood and even adult years.

When the sucking reflex is strongly activated and remains so even after the bottle or breast-feeding years, this forces the tongue forward in the mouth, potentially pushing the upper teeth out, muffling words and causing a lisp. So what can you do to tackle the problem?

Start Early

Some schools of thought argue for waiting until the child is old enough to take responsibility for their actions and therefore, through a better understanding of the consequences, being self-motivated to change their behaviour. However, like any habit, the longer it is indulged, the harder it is to break.

Using some gentle techniques to discourage finger-sucking in a toddler can be more effective than more rigorous methods in an older child and even if not immediately successful, you have at least implanted the idea that finger-sucking is a negative behaviour.

Discouragement Aids

There are many products available to assist in breaking a finger-sucking habit. These vary from bitter tasting ointments to put on the child's finger through fixed braces with a 'gate' to stop the fingers fitting in the roof of the mouth.

Given that the most vulnerable time for your child to fall back into comfort sucking is when tired and falling asleep, you need something cheap and easy to start with. You can purchase child-sized cotton gloves from a chemist and use surgical tape to secure them to your child's hands at bedtime.

Speech Therapy

Attending a speech pathologist will give your child a better awareness of how their habit can affect them. Sometimes a message from a parent is less well-received than that from a professional adult, so hearing a dentist or speech therapist explain the implications of finger-sucking can be a strong incentive for stopping.

A speech therapist can also give your child exercises to do at home, to work on strengthening the tongue and encouraging it to sit in the roof of the mouth as it should.

Reward System

At the end of the day, as your child gets older, the will to change their behaviour has to come from them. Constant nagging to keep their fingers out of their mouth isn't going to support them. Instead, encourage them as much as rewards for a day without sucking, so keep a star chart and a supply of regular motivational prizes. Understand what will help them stop and use those as positive reinforcements.

With determination and by working with your child, you can hopefully break the habit well before any serious long-term effects. For more information or assistance, contact resources such as communiKIDS.