What to do about thumb sucking?

The most common theme in thumb sucking is it is a very natural, self-soothing reflex that happens in infants as a form of safety and comfort. Many children begin sucking their thumbs even in utero.  Many parents tend to oversee the potential problems it can cause since the child will use this method to fall to sleep. However, if the habit persists beyond the age of 2-3 years, there can be permanent damage to your child’s craniofacial development.

WHEN DOES THUMB SUCKING BECOME A REAL ISSUE?  

Evidence shows that children who cease the habit by roughly age 3-4 tend not to display any permanent skeletal effects, however this relies heavily in part to not only the duration, and frequency, but also the force of thumb sucking. For example, the child who is sucking their thumb aggressively, and audibly for hours on end, will have a very different skeletal outcome to those who are passively resting their thumb in their mouth right before bedtime. This is why consulting your pediatric dentist early on is crucial in preventing any permanent skeletal discrepancies like open bites or crossbites.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO AS A PARENT?

We see a decline in thumb-sucking in school aged children due to the social implications surrounded by the habit. However, if your child is still sucking their thumb into age 5,6 + make sure you encourage your children in a positive manner. Children at this age must make a conscientious effort to drop the habit, and many times cannot be forced to change. Informing your child that their habit could cause permanent damage to their teeth and developing jaw, in conjunction with positive reinforcement charts often does the trick.

Please keep in mind that a child must be motivated to stop for any of the below strategies to work.

Keep it positive. It is difficult for a grown up to break a habit, and hard for a child too. Patience and understanding with positive praise when your child is not sucking is best.

  • Try to determine the underlying cause is and address it. Children tend to suck their thumbs when they are feeling insecure or bored.
  • If pacifier use is the issue, try trimming the tip of the pacifier. This will deflate the pacifier and make it less appealing. Gradually trim off more and more until the child no longer wants the pacifier.
  • A reward calendar where the child can track days they have avoided thumb sucking with marks or stickers. Agree on a motivating reward ahead of time and after 30 consecutive days, enjoy the reward. I
  • Reminder finger polish, like Mavala, available at www.amazon.com, has a bitter taste which serves as a reminder not to place fingers or thumb in the mouth. Mavala is applied regularly 2-3 times a day on the nail and surrounding skin. This helps the child to become aware of their habit to help them to stop.
  • Khoury and her team can encourage your child to stop sucking and explain why it is important to stop the habit too.

Suggestions for nighttime:

  • Try placing a band-aid on the favorite finger or a sock or mitten gently taped at the base of the favored hand or an ace bandage gently wrapped around an elbow (which prevents the arm from bending at the elbow to get a thumb in). These can be tracked on a reward calendar for each night the child is able to keep it on and dry.

These suggestions are usually enough to successfully stop the habit. If it is not enough, Dr. Khoury can help with other strategies, such as fabricating a habit appliance.