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How to stop thumb sucking

Posted by Metamorphosis on Apr 20, 2017 3:32:21 PM

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Thumb-sucking is normal in babies and toddlers. Most babies and young children suck their thumbs, fingers, hands, or items such as pacifiers.

And while many parents are initially relieved when their baby finds his thumb, the feeling often changes as their child grows up but doesn’t outgrow the habit.

Most children stop this habit on their own at age 3 to 5 years when they start to develop other coping skills beyond thumb or finger sucking, such as language development. These coping skills replace the need for them to suck on a thumb or finger. But for some kids, thumb sucking or finger sucking is harder to stop. Once they begin thumb-sucking, it may be a difficult habit to quit, they get so used to sucking their thumb while watching TV or sitting quietly or falling asleep that they can't stop. This could lead to problems for their growing mouths.

 If you have a toddler who's still fond of sucking on her thumb, you may have a lot of questions: What's so appealing about it? Will my child have problems with his teeth? What should I do?

In this article, we will answer some of the most frequently asked questions about this matter and share some tips on how you can help your child.

Why does thumb sucking happens?

We all have our ways to relax. While yours might be reading a good book or having a glass of wine, young children have different ways of unwinding. Many turn to a blanket or stuffed animal for comfort, others use their thumbs or fingers as part of their routine to find comfort and to soothe themselves.

There are a couple of reasons why children suck their thumbs:

  • Because they're trying to find a substitute for sucking on a bottle. Sucking on a bottle yields milk, which tastes good and makes them feel good, so they suck on their thumbs when they're off the bottle.
  • Because sucking is one of babies’ natural reflexes. Babies have a natural urge to suck. They probably practiced this habit while they were still in the womb and perfected it as infants.
  • Because it makes them feel secure and happy and helps them learn about their world to suck on their thumbs, fingers, pacifiers or other objects.
  • Because it is soothing and helps them fall asleep at bedtime and to lull themselves back to sleep when they wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Because they are tired, afraid, restless, bored, sick, or trying to adjust to challenges such as starting daycare or preschool.

How to know when to worry about

The urge for thumb sucking usually decreases after the first few years of life. But many toddlers continue to suck their thumbs to soothe themselves. Doctors usually tell parents not to worry about thumb-sucking in children younger than 4 as long as they are developing normal language skills at the appropriate time.

Most children can safely suck their thumb without damaging the alignment of their teeth or jaws, until their permanent teeth begin to appear.

For older children, however, thumb-sucking is not a simple reflex. They might still suck their thumb to relieve boredom or tension or because they feel insecure.

In rare cases, thumb-sucking after age 5 is in response to an emotional problem or other disorder, such as anxiety.

There’s no need for worries unless:

  • They ask you for help to stop the habit.
  • They continue to suck their thumb with great intensity around age 4 or older.
  • If you find callus on their thumb.
  • They feel embarrassed or are teased or shamed by other children.
  • They start developing dental or speech problems.

Orthodontic problems caused by thumb sucking

Prolonged thumb-sucking may push the teeth outward or cause misalignment. It can also lead to speech problems, such as lisping. Speech problems caused by thumb-sucking can include not being able to say Ts and Ds, and thrusting out the tongue when talking.

When permanent teeth start to come in, thumb-sucking could prevent proper spacing and tooth alignment. In severe cases, it can even change the formation of the roof of the mouth. Thumb sucking puts pressure on the sides of the upper jaw and the soft tissue on the roof of the mouth. As a result, the upper jaw can narrow.

Usual problems are top front teeth that stick out, lower front teeth that are pushed in, an anterior open bite (where the upper and lower front teeth do not meet) and a narrow upper arch resulting in a crossbite. This usually corrects itself when the child stops thumb-sucking. But the longer thumb-sucking continues, the more likely it is that orthodontic treatment will be needed. This will involve wearing a brace or having teeth removed - later on. 

There is also the hygiene issue to consider too. Tummy bugs and cold viruses are more easily picked up when a dirty thumb which is rammed into the mouth at every opportunity.

Thumb-sucking can also impact a child's social acceptance and development if other children take note of it and start teasing them at school and other social settings.

However, not all thumb-sucking is equally damaging. It's the intensity of the sucking and the tongue's thrust that deforms teeth and makes braces necessary later. Children who rest their thumbs passively in their mouths are less likely to have dental problems than children who suck aggressively.

Treatments for thumb sucking

Simple home treatment measures stop most children from sucking their thumbs. Here are some strategies for dealing with this habit.

  • If the problem is insecurity, focus on eliminating the cause of the anxiety. If the problem is boredom, offer an alternative activity for distraction. For instance, a rubber ball to squeeze or finger puppets to play with.
  • If thumb sucking only occurs during sleep, you can consider a "thumb guard" (an adjustable plastic cap that is secured to the thumb and not easily removed).
  • Limit the times and places when they are allowed to suck their thumb and put away blankets or other items they associate with thumb-sucking.
  • Offer praise, positive attention, and rewards for not thumb-sucking.
  • Don't embarrass them every time you see them thumb sucking. The bigger the deal you make of it, the more they may be driven to rely on it.
  • If the thumb becomes red and chapped from sucking, try applying a moisturiser while they are sleeping. (If you apply it when they’re awake, it may just end up in the mouth.
  • Involve them in choosing the method to stop. work together to lessen the dependency on thumb sucking or finger sucking before the coping skill turns into a habit.
  • Don't get frustrated, which tends to make the habit worse.

If home treatment doesn't work and you are concerned or feel frustrated about your child's thumb-sucking, it’s time to visit an expert.

The Metamorphosis solution for thumb sucking – Thumb sucking clinic.

Most children will stop sucking their thumbs when they are ready. If, however, after many attempts at trying to kick the habit, your child continues to suck her thumb, you may need to seek outside help.

Metamorphosis orthodontics has launched London’s first ever ‘Thumb Sucking Clinic’ which has been set up to provide specialist treatment to tackle the effects of thumb sucking for children over the age of 6 when permanent teeth start to erupt.

Call us on 020 3828 7116 or email smile@metamorphosisorthodontics.com

Topics: Teeth Straightening for Children