How to Break Oral Habits


Oral Habits

The Pacifier

Pacifier use is the most common non-nutritive sucking habit. It usually begins when parents introduce it in order to calm their child. Over time, it becomes a form of amusement as well, and the child becomes attached to it. Depending on the intensity, frequency, and duration of the habit, pacifiers may affect dental occlusion. Improvement may occur once the habit is eliminated, depending on the child’s age and other factors.

Pacifiers are usually an easier habit to break because the parent can regulate when and for how long the child gets to use one. Many parents have had success with collecting all the pacifiers and “mailing them to the paci fairy.”

Thumb Sucking

When a thumb or finger is inside the mouth, it takes up the space where the lips, teeth, tongue and jaw are normally positioned. This prevents them from functioning in the correct way. Even when the thumb is removed, the structures often remain in the incorrect positions, leading to an open bite, mouth breathing, and an undesirable way of chewing, swallowing, and speaking.

Thumb habits can be more difficult to address, but some simple tricks include placing a band aid on the thumb to help remind your child not to suck it, or placing a sock or glove on the hand when the child goes to bed.

Nail Biting

Unsightly fingernails may cause problems beyond the social issues we are aware of. Fingernail biting can also damage the gums, make the fingertips red and sore, and cause the cuticles to bleed. It increases the risk of bacterial infection around the nail beds and the mouth, which in turn may affect overall health. Stress has been shown to increase the likelihood of nail-biting.

To break this habit try covering the nails, as this will provide a physical reminder. You could also try bad-tasting nail polish, which can act as a deterrent to nail-biting. False nails (not for children) and gloves are other barrier methods that help some people.

Some Additional Tips!

Although these oral habits are a physical act, there is also a strong psychological component to them.  Because many children use these habits for self soothing it may be difficult for them to initially give them up. Keeping this in mind, it is important to give your little one lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement as you begin to wean them from their habit.  Positive reinforcement has been show to be significantly more successful than negative reinforcement when trying to conquer oral habits. Having the child feel like they are on the same team as you and getting them to the place where they want to stop is the best approach.

When you begin the process of trying to break an oral habit a helpful method is to get a large calendar and place stickers on days where your child was able to go without their habit. Studies have shown that it takes at least 30 consecutive days of avoiding the habit to help prevent relapse. In addition to these simple at home tips, there are dental appliances that can be placed in the patient’s mouth to help them overcome these habits. These appliances work best when a child wants to stop but needs a constant reminder, as many of these habits occur without the patient consciously aware that they are doing it.


If you have any questions or concerns, contact Speech-Language Pathologist Christine Wilson.