Like many new parents, the idea of a good night’s sleep became a distant memory once my daughter was born. So when at the tender age of 3 months she discovered her thumb, my husband and I were very grateful. Thumb sucking stops your baby from crying, soothes him/her to sleep and temporarily distracts your child from other matters such as hunger.
As your child grows up but doesn’t outgrow the habit, parents often ask questions such as ‘My baby is sucking his thumb, should I worry?’, ‘How can I stop my toddler from sucking his thumb?’ or ‘Will thumb sucking ruin my child’s teeth’.
Thumb sucking is a very common childhood habit with three quarters of infants sucking their thumb in their first year. Indeed, sucking the thumb is considered normal behaviour for babies and can even start in the womb. Ultrasound scans have observed babies in the womb sucking their thumbs from 28 weeks gestation.
Majority of experts agree that a thumb sucker younger than 5 shouldn't be pressured to stop. Most children will simply grow out of the habit. However, if it continues once your child starts school, it can have a negative effect on developing teeth and bite. If your child is still sucking his thumb or finger when his adult teeth start to erupt, it really is time to take action to break the habit.
Thumb sucking can affect the developing jaw and teeth giving rise to the following:
- Buck teeth – excessive sucking can push the front teeth out of alignment, causing teeth to protrude. This can alter the shape of the face and lead to an open bite.
- A lisp – a child who sucks their fingers and thumbs can push their teeth out of their normal position. This interferes with the correct formation of certain speech sounds resulting in a lisp and imprecise pronunciation (especially of Ts and Ds).
Once the habit has been stopped natural improvement of the teeth can occur within 6 months. If the habit breaks before the adult dentition becomes established (age 7/8) your child is unlikely to have caused any long term damage to their teeth.
So how can you help your child stop
Home remedies such as placing a glove, sock or thumb guard before bedtime, painting the thumb with various foul tasting substances can be successful if combined with positive reinforcement and encouragement; praise your child when they are not sucking their thumb rather than scolding them when they are. Let your child know that placing a sock or thumb guard over his hand at night is not a punishment, just a way to help him remember to avoid sucking.
- Progress/sticker charts can work well with young children – when your child goes a whole week without sucking, reward him with a treat.
- If you notice your child sucking when he's anxious, work on alleviating his anxiety rather than focusing on the thumb sucking.
- Take note of the times your child tends to suck (long car rides, while watching movies) and create diversions during these occasions.
Explain clearly what might happen to his teeth if he keeps sucking his thumb.
Is it worth the aggro?
Yes because more than 60% of UK’s 10 year old digit suckers have very serious bite problems that can require lengthy (and costly) courses of orthodontic treatment.
Whatever your method, always remember that your child needs your support and understanding during the process of breaking the thumb sucking habit. And as most children suck their thumbs when they are tired or bored, keeping their hands busy helps! For the most determined thumb suckers, a visit to the dentist may be needed.
Good news for all those despairing parents with a stubborn thumb sucker in the family! Help is now at hand with a delightfully illustrated book from Dr Runa Mowla-Copley. Meet Charlie who loves sucking his thumb all day and all night. A visit from the Tooth Fairy leads to some rather unusual events which make Charlie think perhaps sucking his thumb isn't such a good idea after all.
Charlie’s Thumb is available online from Amazon - Get a copy of Charlie’s Thumb
Edit from ;Dr Runa Mowla-Copley,
Co-founder of one of London’s first ever Thumb Sucking Clinics.
Author of Charlie’s Thumb