Getting Over Thumb Sucking

For most babies and toddlers, thumb sucking is a normal extension of the comfort sucking associated with taking a pacifier, breastfeeding or bottle feeding. However, as a child grows and thumb sucking continues, the habit becomes a developmental, social and physical problem. While it is important to understand that thumb sucking will happen, parents should also realize that it is their role to help their child get over thumb sucking as they progress from infancy into childhood.

Why Children Suck Their Thumbs

Thumb sucking is a comfort mechanism for many children. Sucking is a natural instinct for human infants and is usually met during the feeding process as well as by artificial nipples like pacifiers. Most babies grow out of the need for constant oral comfort, but some children persist and find sucking to be a comfort even as they outgrow the breast, bottle and pacifier. Over time, thumb sucking becomes less of a physical need and more of a habit of emotional dependency.

>What is Normal?

Thumb sucking can be normal behavior. As a parent, it is crucial to not over-react to the situation and to understand that thumb sucking is a developmental stage of the child’s growth. Thumb sucking is normal and expected for children under the age of three years old. Once a child reaches three years of age, children should be observed to see if the habit is decreasing. If there is a decrease in thumb sucking in a three- to four-year-old child, immediate action may not be necessary; the thumb sucking may naturally decrease on its own. However, if the child is approaching five years old, then more direct intervention is probably advisable.

Developmental Risks

Thumb sucking over the age of five can result in physical and developmental problems. Because a young child’s jaw is still soft, the pressure caused by thumb sucking can result in jaw and teeth deformities. Continued thumb sucking can even reshape the arch of your child’s mouth, resulting in permanent deformity. These risks are raised with the amount of time the habit continues, the more often the child indulges and the harder they suck.

What to Do

There are several ways to help an older child overcome the habit of thumb sucking. For some children, drawing attention to the issue is enough to help them recognize the problem and work on overcoming it. Other children, however, enjoy the attention they get from thumb sucking and this strategy backfires. In that case, some of the following strategies may be implemented:

-Remove comfort objects the child associates with thumb sucking, such as blankets or stuffed animals.
-Chart the child’s thumb sucking patterns and be ready with distractions and activities to divert their attention.
-Safely restrict the child’s movement during naps and bedtime.
-Regularly discuss the repercussions of continued thumb sucking, including physical deformity.
-Cover the preferred finger or thumb with a cloth, bandage or other barrier.
-Use a commercial product that coats the finger with an unpleasant taste.

These techniques work for most children. However, the most persistent thumb suckers can overcome even the most diligent home remedies that parents employ. If a child is in this category, the help of a dental professional should be sought. It may be necessary to have an orthodontist install a thumb sucking crib. This will stop the problem in its tracks for even the most insistent thumb sucker.

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