Thumb Sucking – What to do, and not do, about it

Babies sometimes suck their thumbs while still in the womb. At birth, a baby will reflexively suck any object placed in its mouth; this is the sucking reflex responsible for breastfeeding. From the very first time they feed, infants learn that the habit cannot only provide valuable nourishment, pleasure, comfort, and warmth. This behavior, over time, becomes a habit associated with a very strong, self-soothing, and pleasurable oral sensation. As the child grows older, sucking their thumbs or fingers is a soothing activity that can help reduce their anxiety. The good news is that parents do not need to worry. The American Dental Association says most children can safely suck their thumb – without causing any damage to the alignment of their teeth or jaws – until their permanent teeth begin to appear, usually around age 6.  Many children stop sucking their thumbs on their own sometime during the toddler years — between ages 2 and 4. For older kids who continue to suck their thumbs, peer pressure at school usually ends the habit. Occasionally, even a child who’s stopped sucking her thumb might revert to the behavior when stressed or anxious. Keep in mind that not all thumb-sucking is equally damaging. Experts say it’s the intensity of the sucking and the tongue’s thrust that deforms teeth and can make braces necessary later. Children who rest their thumb passively in their mouth are less likely to have dental problems than children who suck aggressively. Observe your child’s technique. If he sucks vigorously, you may want to begin gently correcting his habit around age 4.  Nagging or punishing your child won’t help because he doesn’t usually realize when he’s sucking away. Besides, pressuring him to stop may intensify his desire to do it even more.  Try to wait it out. Children usually give up thumb-sucking when they find other ways to calm and comfort themselves.  For example, a toddler who’s hungry may suck his thumb, but an older child (age 3 or 4) might simply open the refrigerator and look for something to eat or ask his parents for a snack instead. When should you intervene? Thumb sucking isn’t usually a concern until a child’s permanent teeth come in. At this point, thumb sucking might begin to affect the roof of the mouth (palate) or how the teeth line up — especially if the thumb sucking is aggressive. Consider stepping in if: • Your child sucks his or her thumb frequently or aggressively after age 4 or 5 • The thumb sucking is causing dental problems, such as the upper front teeth tipping toward the lip • Your child is embarrassed about the thumb sucking girl sucking thumb Consider the following advice to encourage your child to stop thumb sucking;

  • Positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment. Resist the temptation to use aversion techniques, such as covering your child’s thumbnail with vinegar or another bitter substance.
  • Don’t use a glove or a mitten on the hand as a quick-fix to thumb or finger sucking. This will just frustrate them and cause more anxiety. If they’re old enough to just take it off, and as a result, they’ll just want to suck more.
  • Don’t mention it. In some cases, paying no attention to thumb sucking is enough to stop the behavior — especially if your child uses thumb sucking as a way to get attention.
  • Do come up with creative ways to help your child understand that he is growing up and one day won’t suck his thumb anymore. Ask your child, “Do you think Bob the Builder sucks his thumb?” Then they’ll think about, and start to process whether they want to be sucking their thumbs anymore.
  • Use positive reinforcement. Praise your child or provide small rewards — such as an extra bedtime story or a trip to the park — when he or she isn’t thumb sucking. Place stickers on a calendar to record the days when your child successfully avoids thumb sucking.
  • Identify triggers. If your child sucks his or her thumb in response to stress, identify the real issue and provide comfort in other ways — such as a hug or reassuring words. You might also give your child a pillow or stuffed animal to squeeze.
  • baby sucking thumb
  • Offer gentle reminders. If your child sucks his or her thumb without thought — rather than as a way to get your attention — gently remind him or her to stop. Don’t scold, criticize or ridicule your child. To spare embarrassment in front of others, you might alert your child to the thumb sucking with a special hand signal or other private cue.
  • Preempt thumb-sucking with other activities. If you can identify the times and places when your child is most likely to suck his thumb – while watching television, for example – consider distracting him with a substitute activity, such as a rubber ball to bounce or puppets to play with. The key is to notice when and where sucking occurs and try to divert his attention by offering an alternative.

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