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Thumb sucking: learning to let go

October 31, 2011

My little friend Harper sucks her thumb. She is the cutest and sweetest 5-year-old: funny, shy and loves on my little girl like a big sister. I never thought much of it. Some kids suck their thumb; some don’t. But, I’ve come to realize that this seemingly innocent habit can become quite a challenge for many families.

Thumb sucking can be anxiety-provoking in both parents and children. Parents struggle to discourage a behavior that they can never maintain complete control over. Children find comfort in their habit, and as parents increase efforts to control the behavior, they retreat to their comforting habit with heightened intensity.

As a life-long hair twirler, I sympathize with the thumb suckers. My entire childhood I was told I would have a bald spot if I didn’t stop twirling my hair. I rolled my eyes and just kept twirling. Anyone who knows me can picture me now sitting at my computer, twirling away. But, I also sympathize with the parents. We try to steer our kids in the direction that is healthy for them. Sometimes, that is harder than it sounds.

What should parents know about thumb sucking?

It is vital to understand that thumb sucking is a normal and healthy way for babies and toddlers to satisfy their instinctual need to suck. That means, when it is done during an appropriate developmental stage, don’t worry about it. Children find various ways to soothe themselves: pacifiers, blankies, dolls and even their fingers. Encourage their self-soothing.

Most children will stop sucking their thumb on their own between ages 2 and 4, as the necessity for self-soothing and their desire for sucking naturally decreases. Often, parents become concerned about thumb sucking early in infancy or toddlerhood and try to discourage the habit. Research has shown that parental intervention occurring early actually works to prolong the habit. The children who don’t stop sucking spontaneously are often those that have been discouraged early.

What can happen if thumb sucking occurs too long?

When continued beyond 4 to 5 years old when permanent teeth are beginning to appear, thumb sucking can cause changes in the way the jaw and teeth develop.

Dr. Nick Savastano, an orthodontist who has treated many children with this problem, says, “Prolonged thumb or finger sucking causes the upper front teeth not only to push up but also flare out. Also, we see an effect on the upper jaw where it starts to decrease in width and have a profound effect on the bite.”

Over time this can affect chewing, speech and facial appearance. Left untreated, Dr. Savastano says, “the child may ultimately need a surgical procedure to correct the jaw when they are finished growing.”

So, what is a parent to do?

Initially, the best approach to help children overcome their habit is to ignore the behavior. Don’t convey your concern to them. For the majority of children, the behavior will disappear with time and lack of attention.

Some parents have tried home remedies such as gloves to cover a child’s hands at nighttime, foul-tasting nail polish or wrapping bandages around their fingers. There are success stories. But, as anyone who has tried to break a nasty habit knows, these are deeply ingrained behaviors that may require more than these quick-fixes can offer.

Experts say that when a child reaches age 5, they are able to understand consequences and have developed some self-control. This might be a good time to sit down with your child and explain how thumb sucking can affect their teeth, speech and appearance.

Many parents have found that once a child begins school, peer pressure and the fear of embarrassment are a child’s greatest deterrent. Why? Because the success of any intervention ultimately relies on the child’s own desire to stop.

Become an advocate and support system for your child as they decide for themselves to put an end to the habit and consider these points:

  • Stay positive. Reward and encourage when the child is not engaged in thumb sucking.
  • Keep from nagging, threatening or teasing your child. Be sure that your words are not causing anxiety or shame in your child, which may prolong the habit.
  • Offer alternative activities for their hands. If your child commonly sucks her thumb in the car, offer a game that requires use of her hands that she only gets to play in the car.
If your child is still engaged in thumb sucking beyond 5 years of age or once their permanent teeth have begun to come in, seek professional help.

Some children, despite their best efforts aren’t able to break the habit. An orthodontist can follow these children, and if needed, fit them with an appliance that is very effective at curbing the habit. In fact, Dr. Savastano recommends, “All children should see an orthodontist at age 7 for a screening appointment in order to determine how the jaws and teeth are developing. About 10-15% of all children need some type of early treatment to help properly develop the jaws during their early growth phase.”

In the end, it’s one of the terribly inconvenient truths of parenting: we can’t control everything. But, with a little guidance, even the thumb suckers and hair twirlers will eventually find their way.