non-nutritive oral habits

All about thumb sucking and non-nutritive oral habits

All about thumb sucking and non-nutritive oral habits

Repetitive behaviors are part of growing up for babies. These are essential for survival as well as learning. Oral habits are the most common repetitive behavior. Oral habits can be nutritive and non-nutritive. These have an impact on speech development and other aspects.

Some non-nutritive oral habits are –

  • Thumb or finger sucking
  • Sucking on clothes or other objects
  • Tongue thrust
  • Lip and nail-biting
  • Bruxism
  • Sucking on pacifiers

Nutritive as the name suggests, sucking for gaining nutrition. For instance, breastfeeding, and drinking milk from a bottle are a form of nutritive sucking. Non–nutritive sucking (NNS) is sucking for pleasure.

Pros of Non-Nutritive Sucking

For infants under the age of 3, it is normal to engage in NNS. However, keep in mind the intensity, frequency and duration should not be more. NNS acts as a self-soothing behavior. In this way, kids become independent. They can self-regulate themselves. They are aware of their emotions. This helps them de-stress and focus their attention. NNS happens more when an infant is sleeping, anxious, or bored. Thus, NNS helps in providing comfort and a feeling of safety.

Impact of NNS on speech and other aspects –

  1. Impact on communication:

Children develop language in stages. It starts with sound play, vocalization, babbling, and then word phrases, etc. practice makes a man perfect. Repetition will help them improve their speaking skills. We often hear kids engaging in vocal play while they are alone. We talk or engage with them. This is the beginning of social interaction. We expand their vocabulary, smile, and develop eye contact. These are all critical foundations of communication skills. This is a vital developmental activity; hence they should not have something in their mouth all the time.

If a baby or toddler has a thumb or pacifier in their mouth, they are not engaging in vocal play. If these babies become dependent on it, then we can’t take it out without a battle. When a child is dependent on NNS for comfort, it can become isolated in play later and lead to teasing from others.

  1. Impact on speech clarity

Similar to language development, babies need to practice oral movements to produce the correct sound. They understand the correct placement of the tongue, lips, and jaw. The correct movement to let the air out for sounds such as /s/. In addition to the lack of practice, thumb sucking leads to changes in the position of the tongue and teeth. Common sounds which get affected due to thumb sucking are /s/, /ch/, /z/, /ch/, /j/, /t/, /d/, /l/ and /n/. children can develop a lisp. In this, the tongue is forward or lateral while producing /s/. This can be heard as distorted /s/ production. Without treatment from SLP, this will go on in adulthood.

  1. Impact on dental and oral structure

We have seen above how oral structures are vital for speech and language development. Apart from this, they impact our looks and the way we eat. Thumb sucking beyond the age of 3 will lead to malocclusions. Overbite, in these front teeth, protrudes outwards. This impacts smiles and eating. It often requires orthodontic treatment. Tongue thrust, which more frontal resting position of the tongue. This causes a problem with swallowing.

Apart from this, the social issue of teasing and the number of germs picked up by my baby is so much with the use of pacifiers or thumb sucking.

What to do?

First of all, ask yourself what is the intensity of thumb sucking? Can you bruises your toddler’s thumb? Can you strong contraction of the cheeks while sucking? If yes, this intensity is too strong. Notice the frequency, how often does your child suck his/her thumb? For how many years this habit has persisted.

If you notice this before the age of three as well, you should have some system in place to reduce thumb sucking if not entirely stop it.

Some tips to reduce or stop thumb sucking:

  1. Reinforcement: This is the most obvious and go-to technique for any behavior. Say something positive when they are not engaging in NNS. For instance, I like how your hands are to yourself. How that finger is out of your mouth. Praise can be verbal or any eatable which is suitable to you.
  2. Just telling them to stop sucking will not reduce the frequency. You have to actively engage them in other things. For instance, peek-a-boo games, and finger games. Play with other toys or read books.
  3. I often see a more Indian way such as putting chilly or covering it with a clot. I am not sure how effective it can be. Instead, consult a dentist and get appropriate tools that can be used to stop sucking.
  4. Find out the cause. Do they engage in NNS when anxious, scared, or bored? If yes, then find the solution for the underlying cause.
  5. Keep their hand busy with fidget toys or painting. You can use play dough or clay.
  6. If none of these methods or other methods work. It is better if you see a professional. As not to mention, some of these may cause a lot of discomfort to your child. Hence to avoid further trauma, make sure to start early and consult an SLP or dentist.


In conclusion, the mouth is the only way to express emotions and thoughts for babies. They do this by crying and babbling. And another way to is by engaging in non-nutritive sucking. NNS can be beneficial and harmful. If the intensity, duration, or frequency is more then you should seek help from a speech-language pathologist. They will help you in reducing these habits. Not all kids are the same; hence, all kids may not have this impact. But make sure you start early if you see any issues.

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