Thumb-sucking is very common among young children. Babies suck their thumbs to help them go to sleep, to calm themselves down, or simply because it feels good. It's likely your child developed this habit in the womb and mastered it during infancy.
“Thumb-sucking is a natural response to the need to suck to get nutrition,” notes Dr. Ellen Stecker, pediatrician with BMG River City Pediatrics. “It is often associated with security item, such as a blanket or stuffed animal.”
Simply resting the thumb in the mouth for a short period of time is less likely to cause a problem. If your child is an aggressive thumb sucker, however, it could affect teeth alignment as well as impact the roof of the mouth.
When to intervene?
“The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends guiding parents to help their child stop sucking their thumb by the age of 3 years or younger,” says Dr. John Acosta, pediatric dentist with Pediatric Dental Group. Preliminary evidence indicates some bite problems will persist. Besides, between the ages of 3 and 4, children develop reasoning skills and parents can use encouragement to help break this habit.
“Intervention should be gentle and with the child taking a role in deciding how to remind herself,” suggests Stecker. “These ‘reminders’ should not be imposed on the child like a punishment but should be part of a mutually agreed upon plan. If the child is ridiculed or the thumb is forced away, the child will probably become more attached and less likely to quit.”
Get your child in on the plan
The good news is most kids quit on their own by the time they reach kindergarten. However, approximately 15 percent of children persist into elementary school.
“If the habit continues through age 6, the parent and child should work together to come up with a plan that is reasonable for the child to accomplish, while conveying understanding that this is a difficult task and how proud you are that he is working on it,” explains Stecker.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says treatment is usually limited to children who continue thumb-sucking after turning 5.
“Any treatment considered must be appropriate for the child’s development, comprehension, and ability to cooperate,” observes Acosta. As far as dental options go, there are numerous types, from at-home remedies to habit appliances. Use of a habit appliance is indicated only when the child says they want to stop but cannot.
Remember this about thumb-sucking: It is more successful when your child wants to stop. If the habit is ingrained and your child doesn’t want to, he’ll take off the sock, glove, or bandage, as well as products like ThumbGuard, Stopzit, or Mavala Stop.
In those cases, the best option is to install a thumb-sucking appliance that cannot be removed by the child, says Acosta. It is attached to the upper molars with orthodontic bands. When a child tries to put his thumb inside the mouth, the wire loop comes off the orthodontic bands and covers part of the palate, thus making it uncomfortable to place the thumb into the mouth. This device puts no pressure on the palate or teeth.
Keep teeth healthy
The AAPD recommends taking your child to see a pediatric dentist before his first birthday. Early dental visits can provide parents with guidance to help your child stop thumb-sucking by an appropriate age. Pediatric Dental Group offers complimentary dental exams for children under the age of 2.
Ways to help your kid break the habit
- Offer praise when your child doesn’t suck his thumb instead of scolding him when he does.
- If he sucks his thumb when feeling insecure, recognize the cause of the anxiety and provide comfort, or find a different way to self-soothe.
- If he thumb-sucks when bored, distract him with a hands-on activity.
- If sucking persists, put a bandage or sock on the thumb at night, or speak with a pediatric dentist for advice.
Source: American Dental Association