Thumb Sucking

Along with favorite blankets, teddy bears, and nap time, thumb-sucking can be one of the most comforting aspects of childhood. According to a recent report, between 75% and 95% of infants suck their thumbs, so chances are there's a thumb-sucker (or a former thumb-sucker) in your family. Is this cause for worry?

In most cases, no. However, it's important to pay attention to your child's habits, in case such behavior has the potential to affect his/her oral health.

What Is Normal Thumb-sucking Behavior?

The majority of children suck a thumb or a finger from a very young age; most even start inside the womb. Sucking is a natural reflex for an infant, and it serves an important purpose; it often provides a sense of security and contentment for a young one. It can also be relaxing, which is why many children suck their thumbs as they fall asleep.

According to the American Dental Association, most children stop thumb-sucking on their own between the ages of two and four. They simply outgrow a habit that is no longer useful to them.

However, some children continue sucking beyond the preschool years (although studies show that the older a child gets, the lower his chances of continuing to suck his thumb). If your child is still sucking when his permanent teeth start to erupt, it may be time to take action to break the habit.

What Signs Should I Watch For?

First, take note of how your child sucks his thumb. If he/she sucks passively, with the thumb gently resting inside his mouth, he/she is less likely to cause damage. If, on the other hand, he/she is an aggressive thumb-sucker, placing pressure on the mouth or teeth, the habit may cause problems with tooth alignment and proper mouth growth. Extended sucking affects both the teeth and the shape of the jaws and face, and may lead to a need for orthodontic treatment in the future.

If at any time you suspect your child's thumb-sucking may be affecting his/her oral health, please give us a call or bring him/her in for a visit. We can help you assess the situation.

How Can I Help My Child Quit Thumb-sucking?

Should you need to help your child end his habit, follow these guidelines:

  1. Always be supportive and positive. Instead of punishing your child for thumb-sucking, give praise when he/she doesn't suck.
  2. Put a bandage on the thumb or a sock over the hand at night. Let him/her know that this is not a punishment, just a way to help him/her remember to avoid sucking.
  3. Start a progress chart and let your child put a sticker up every day that he/she doesn't suck his thumb. If he/she makes it through a week without sucking, he/she gets to choose a prize (trip to the zoo, new set of blocks, etc.) When he/she has filled up a whole month, reward him with something great (a baseball glove, a doll, or new video game); by then the habit should be over. Making your child an active participant in the treatment will increase his/her willingness to break the habit.
  4. If you notice your child sucking when he/she is anxious, work on alleviating his/her anxiety rather than focusing on the thumb-sucking.
  5. Take note of the times your child tends to suck (long car rides, while watching movies) and create diversions during these occasions.
  6. Explain clearly what might happen to his/her teeth if the habit continues.

Whatever your method, always remember that your child needs your support and understanding during the process of breaking the thumb-sucking habit.

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