Speech related effects and elimination of pacifier use/thumb sucking behaviors

Pacifiers and thumb-sucking behaviors are perfectly normal and adaptive for children under the age of two. For children at this age, pacifiers or thumb-sucking help soothe and regulate emotions. While some parents worry about how these behaviors affect speech, the research is not so clear-cut.

While some research suggests that there are (speech) risk factors associated with prolonged sucking, other research has determined that this may not be the case. Regardless of what the findings may be, here are some facts that may allow you to rest easy, while giving suggestions for what to do next in order to break any bad habits.

Associated Speech differences:

Physical changes, mainly with teeth (malocclusions), due to pacifier or thumb-sucking may be the result of prolonged sucking. Open bites and overbites are commonly seen in the mouths of children who are/were pacifier or thumb-suckers. There are some common characteristics associated with speech (misarticulations) due to these structural changes. Due to malocclusions, there is no barrier that exists to keep the child’s tongue behind his/her teeth. In this way, sound distortions may be evident for phonemes including: /s/, /z/, /sh/, /ch/, /j/ ; these sounds may be produced with increased frontal or lateral airflow, commonly termed as a ‘frontal lisp’ or ‘lateral lisp’. In addition to increased airflow, tongue protrusion is seen as there is nothing to ‘stop’ the tongue from coming forward.

In addition to malocclusions, prolonged sucking has been linked to more frequent ear infections, which may also have a negative impact on speech development. However, these sucking behaviors can also be associated with prolonged breast-feeding in addition to thumb and pacifier sucking.

Other experts suggest that eliminating a pacifier and/or thumb-sucking behaviors between ages 2-4 (by or before 36 months) is wise in order to avoid potential dental problems seen with prolonged sucking.

What can parents do?

While there isn’t necessarily a ‘stop sucking’ guide that can be given to parents to eliminate pacifier use/thumb-sucking in children, here are some tips to help phase it out:


  1. Limit the use of the pacifier:

 Tell your toddler that the pacifier will be used in certain environments (crib, car, house) or during certain times of the day (nap/bedtime). From here, you can slowly begin to wean your child from the pacifier for longer stretches of time.

  • Encourage them to donate their pacifier to a younger sibling and/or family member:

Though the actual pacifier may not be reused, the act of giving it up to someone who needs it may help ease the pain of just having that security being taken away.

  • Pacifier fairy:

The pacifier fairy (much like the tooth fairy) is a great fictional character to introduce to your toddler. It would be suggested that this ‘idea’ be proposed to your toddler a few weeks before the pacifier fairy actually ‘comes to visit’. The idea is the toddler collects his/her pacifiers and puts them in a spot in his/her room. The fairy pays the toddler a visit to take the pacifiers in exchange for something else (a small reward of some sort), just like the tooth fairy. Once the pacifier fairy has visited, the child is no longer a ‘baby’ and is rewarded with a big girl/boy token.


  1. Set a time when it’s okay (at first):

Set parameters that make sense for thumb-sucking. Have a conversation with your toddler to explain that bedtime/naptime are when it is ‘okay’ to suck their thumb.

  • Give praise:

When your child IS NOT sucking their thumb, make sure to highlight their successes to let them know they’re doing a good job to help motivate them to keep it up. Perhaps create a sticker chart to help the child visualize all of the times they haven’t sucked their thumb to keep them engaged in their efforts for elimination.

  • Find other ways to help soothe a thumb-sucking child:

Offer, instead, a blanket, stuffed animal, pillow or comforting object to create a possible diversion for the child. Make sure these items are soft and comforting, as the child will potentially be taking them to bed for naps and bedtime routine or will be ‘resting’ with them.

  • Bad tasting nail-polish:

Though it may be a last resort, there are items that are available that create an aversion to this type of behavior. It is not recommended for children