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Two Thumbs UP

What Parents Need to Know about Thumb Sucking

By Caron B. Goode

In parenting circles, thumb sucking is a double edge sword. On one hand, it comforts your child. On the other, it may cause orthodontia problems. This ongoing debate boils down to one question: When should parents take issue with thumb sucking?

Children suck their thumbs for a variety of reasons. For infants, it is a natural reflex that often begins in the womb. As babies grow, they learn a lot about their bodies and the world around them through sucking. They suck on their fingers, clothing, and toys. From this action they learn what is pleasing and what is uncomfortable. Sucking on an ice cube or cool teething ring feels good when those first teeth are trying to break through. However, when the same child sucks on a hard plastic toy, she may experience discomfort.

Young children also use sucking to soothe and comfort themselves. Since the action is relaxing, it often induces sleep. That is why parents will notice children sucking their thumbs when they are tired. In fact, many thumb suckers fall asleep more easily, are able to put themselves back to sleep quicker, and sleep through the night much earlier than their non-thumb sucking peers.

With all these positives, is there a point when parents should be concerned about thumb sucking? According to the American Dental Association (ADA), after a child’s permanent teeth come in, thumb sucking can cause problems. It can interfere with proper mouth growth, teeth alignment, and cause changes to the roof of the mouth. One factor that determines whether a child will have dental problems is the intensity with which she sucks. A child who just rests her thumb in her mouth or passively sucks on it is less likely to develop problems than a child who sucks her thumb in earnest. Therefore, parents whose children are vigorous thumb suckers should pay attention to any changes in their child’s primary teeth, and consult a dentist if any are noted.

The ADA recommends children give up thumb sucking by the time their permanent front teeth start coming in. This is typically around the age of five, but the good news is that the majority of children lose interest in thumb sucking long before this point. If your child is not one of them, then you may have to intervene.

Six Ways To Help Your Child Give The Thumb Up

1. Earlier is not always better. Studies of older thumb suckers show they have one thing in common. They were all encouraged by their parents, in one way or another, to stop sucking their thumb at an early age. It appears that their well meaning parents actually enforced their thumb sucking by trying to force their children to stop.

2. Create an environment where she wants to stop on her own. Nagging your thumb sucker is no good for either of you. Instead, encourage her to realize how much she has grown and changed. Show her what she has left behind on her way to maturity. Point out that she no longer has use for diapers, bottles, or high chairs. Tell her how proud you are of that. Ask her what else she thinks she will give up. If she doesn’t say thumb sucking, then you should suggest it.

3. Weaken the habit. When you notice her thumb in her mouth, try to distract her. Engage her in an activity that requires she use both hands. Be especially prepared before nap and bedtime. Have her hold the book you are reading or hug a stuffed animal with each arm.

4. Help her notice. When she wants to give up thumb sucking, tell her about a habit you gave up and how hard it was. Then decide on a secret signal between the two of you. When she unconsciously slips her thumb in her mouth, and she will, you can use the secret signal to help her realize what she is doing. By using a secret signal, you replace what could be a shameful situation with fun.

5. Use authority. Comments from her pediatrician and dentist can work wonders. These authority figures have been a constant in her life. They can help her feel that she wants to stop sucking her thumb because she is growing up.

6. Peer pressure. Friends are very important to this age group. Having a sleepover with friends that do not suck their thumbs can be very helpful. If she sucks her thumb and they mention it, this might be the motivation she needs to stop.




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