Thumb Sucking in Children: Consequences and Prevention

Thumb Sucking in Children: Consequences and Prevention

Children use thumb sucking as a self-soothing technique, either to relieve anxiety or fall asleep. This habit may even start in the womb and usually continues through infancy until the child is two to four years old. Some children may quit earlier between six to seven months but may revert to the habit if they are under stress.

Many parents worry that their child will be bullied at school because of thumb sucking. Perhaps a bigger concern is the effect of thumb sucking on your child’s teeth, mouth, and jaw. Continued thumb sucking can cause a depression in the roof of your child’s mouth and a narrower upper jaw, which could result in a lisp that must be corrected with speech therapy. As your child’s permanent teeth grow in, they could become misaligned, causing more problems down the road.

The American Association of Pediatrics suggests that parents should only worry about thumb sucking after their child has reached five years of age. Other pediatricians believe that thumb-sucking should be abandoned when the child is three years old at most.

An important thing to remember about thumb sucking is that it’s a child’s way of calming him or herself down during stressful periods. Be gentle when breaking your child of the habit. Don’t scold or humiliate your child. Rather, use methods that encourage him to break away from the habit on his own. Ripping away something he is using as a coping mechanism can cause emotional turmoil and embarrassment.

We suggest the following tips for what you should and shouldn’t do to encourage your child to stop thumb sucking.

What you should do:

1. Use positive reinforcement. Praise them for not sucking their thumb, rather than punishing them when they do. You might consider small rewards to encourage their progress, such as a system of stickers your child uses to earn a toy or treat from their favorite restaurant.

2. Set smaller goals for your child. Since children often use thumb sucking to help them fall asleep, you might tell them that thumb sucking is not allowed an hour before bed.

3. Tell your children that you’ll help them when they want to stop thumb sucking. This makes quitting their own choice and gives them a feeling of empowerment.

4. If your child is sucking his or her thumb out of boredom or a nervous habit, find something to play with at the table, like a cradle string game, bouncing ball, or a puzzle.

5. Find out what is making your child anxious. Comfort him or her and offer better solutions for coping.

6. Gently remind your child not to suck his thumb. Consider reminding him when he is sucking his thumb, as he might not even realize it. As mentioned, criticizing and scolding your child will make breaking the habit more difficult, because this increases his emotional stress.

7. If you think your child might be sucking his or her thumb to get your attention, ignore it. Your child will eventually give it up on his own.

8. Ask your Montreal Dentist to help. For some children, it is more effective to have the dentist explain why thumb sucking is bad than for parents to intervene themselves.

9. If you’re worried about bullying, just know that your child is more likely to give up the habit of peer pressure than through your intervention.

What you shouldn’t do:

1. Don’t tell your child not to suck his or her thumb in public. Correct the problem at home to avoid embarrassment.

2. Don’t worry that the habit will last forever. Your child will grow out of it. Some drop the habit earlier than others. Some do it on their own, while others may need a little help.

3. Don’t prevent your child from sucking his or her thumb after an injury. Let your child soothe himself when he’s down, and encourage him in stronger moments.

4. Some suggest more drastic measures like putting a bad-tasting substance on your child’s thumb or making him sleep with a sock on his hand or tape on his fingers. These methods will frustrate and upset your child when he is trying to relieve his own stress. Consider using positive methods that encourage him to quit on his own, rather than tear his coping strategy away from him.

5. Don’t simply tell your child that he’s not allowed to suck his thumb anymore. Adults don’t always understand what this habit means for children and what stress they may be going through as they make their way into the world. Your child will kick the habit, so don’t humiliate or discourage him while he does.