Thumb sucking is a common habit and natural reflex for children. Sucking on thumbs, fingers, pacifiers or whatever they can get in their mouth may make babies feel secure and happy and help them learn about their world. Thumb sucking can continue as a child grows. They will use the thumb sucking to soothe themselves or help themselves fall asleep.
Is Thumb sucking normal?
Babies have a natural rooting and sucking reflex. This can cause them to put their thumbs or fingers into their mouths. Thumb sucking can sometimes can occur even before birth. Because thumb sucking is soothing to babies, some slowly develop a habit of thumb sucking when they are tired, anxious or simply bored. Some children who are thumb suckers will only suck their thumb, while some will need to hold an object they treasure, like a security blanket or soft stuffed animal.
Does Thumb sucking cause any problems?
Unfortunately thumb sucking can cause problems for children if it continues. Thumb sucking in children younger than 4 is usually not an issue for development. Children who suck their thumbs often or with increased aggressiveness after 4-5 years of age, or those who are still sucking their
thumbs at age 6, are at risk for dental or speech problems. Once the permanent teeth begin to come in and develop in the mouth, the persistent thumb sucking may cause top teeth to push out and upward, and bottom teeth to push inward. This tooth movement can cause development of a “buck tooth” appearance, an inability to close the front teeth (open bite), damage to the roof of the mouth, and subsequent speech issues. Pacifiers cause similar issues as thumb sucking but the habit of using the pacifier is a far easier habit to break, it can be thrown out, a finger can not. What determines if thumb sucking causes dental problems or not is the intensity and length of time of the thumb sucking. Checking a child’s thumb for damaged skin and calluses can help determine the aggressiveness of the thumb sucking habit. Many children simply rest their thumbs in their mouth. These children are far less likely to develop any long term issues from their version of thumb sucking. On the other hand, an aggressive thumb sucker may develop issues with their primary and permanent teeth (if they are still thumb sucking at that point when they erupt.
Speech problems caused by thumb sucking are related to the misaligned teeth, distorted palate, and tongue thrusting. The tongue does not have the ability to find the correct placement for proper enunciation, and the tongue muscle needs to be retrained. Tongue thrusting is the pushing forward motion of the tongue when swallowing, causing a continued pressure on the teeth even when not thumb sucking.Speech problems can include not being able to properly say S’s, T’s and D’s, lisping, and tongue thrusting when talking.
Children who are thumb suckers may need treatment for the following reason:
-They have not stopped thumb sucking on their own by age 4-5.
-Speech problems are becoming noticeable.
-If they are teased or feel embarrassed by their sucking.
At home treatment by children can include:
-Gentle reminders from parents and loved ones. When you notice your child sucking their thumb, gently remind him or her to stop. You should always avoid criticizing or making fun of your child. This will only create stress.
-Positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement goes a long way in this area. Provide small rewards when they are not sucking their thumbs for extended periods of time. A reward could be as simple as an extra trip to the park or a slightly later bedtime.
-Competing response. Parents should give their child encouragement to do a different activity when they feel the urge to suck their thumbs. Could be something like squeezing a pillow.
Parents should also take away the child’s security blanket or stuffed animal during certain times of day. This will limit the amount of sucking. Another option is putting gloves on the hands or placing band aids over the thumb in question. This can help the child by reminding them they should not suck their thumbs.
If home treatment does not work and you are worried or feel frustrated about your child’s thumb sucking you should talk with your child’s dentist or doctor. There may be other treatment options, such as behavioral therapy, special nail polish for thumbnail, thumb devices, or devices for the mouth (habit appliances). A dental habit appliance is only a good idea for children who have not been able to stop thumb sucking on their own and have asked for help. It is usually something non removable, blocking the roof of the mouth to make thumb sucking impossible. It is worn for a few weeks to months and then removed by the dentist.
Remember that thumb-sucking usually is not a problem until a child starts kindergarten or later. Most children will cease the activity on their own if you give them enough time. Slowly but surely, most children begin to stop thumb sucking on their own around ages 3-6 years old. If you notice changes in your child’s primary teeth, or are concerned about your child’s thumb sucking consult your dentist.