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Don't worry too much about thumb sucking

Last updated: 09 September, 2011
“You are not alone, you are not afraid, you don't need your thumb, and your thumb does not need you.”
— Dr Parry Lyman


Thumb-sucking is one of the first coordinated acts a baby can perform — one that brings comfort and pleasure. For young children, thumb-sucking can be just a way to relieve the feeling of hunger.

It is comforting behaviour and doesn’t usually need to be restricted. Parents sometimes start to worry too early, about how to stop the habit.

It is not necessary to stop them before the age of four unless parents notice a problem in their teeth due to vigorous thumb-sucking.

When it becomes a problem

*Thumb-sucking causes serious teeth problems if it continues long after the formation of permanent teeth. The problem gets more serious if it continues after the age of four and five.
*Prolonged finger sucking can create crowded, crooked teeth, or other teething problems.
*The child may also develop speech problems or problems with swallowing properly.
*Protrusion and displacement of front teeth are usual results.
*Malformation of teeth can affect the child’s appearance and cause further emotional problems.

Do’s and don’ts
*Talk about the ‘bad’ germs that collect on the hands . This usually does the trick.
*Carefully remove your child’s thumb from his/her mouth during sleep.
*Give your child extra attention and observe if conflicts or anxiety provoke thumb sucking. If so, help him/her find more healthier ways to deal with stress.
nReward your child for progress made towards his goal. Don’t think of it as a bribe because it’s something he/she has earned through effort.
*Paint something that tastes bad on his thumb, like vinegar or pickle juice. Don’t do it forcefully or without permission, but as a way of helping achieve the goal. The bad taste will quickly remind him/her of what they are trying to accomplish.
*Distract your child. If you engage him/her in an activity that requires both hands, they will have to stop. Keep your child’s hands occupied with a toy, puzzle, book or any other interesting activity.
*Give the example of his friends that have managed to stop thumb sucking. Invite friends over that don’t suck their thumbs for frequent play dates. Peer pressure is a powerful motivator.
*A pediatric-dentist can also install an oral appliance that makes it uncomfortable to suck the thumb and release pressure on the teeth and palate. This is important if the habit is affecting oral development.
*Avoid putting your child down or describing him as being ‘babyish’.
*Avoid nagging your child or turning this into a power struggle, the more anxious he/she becomes, the more likely he/she will need the comfort of the thumb.
*It is not important to get your child to give up this habit if it is not causing any problem.
*Never punish or shame your child to resolve the problem. These types of negative action will hurt your child’s self-esteem and only add to his anxiety.
If your child has not stopped thumb sucking by his third birthday, you should consider taking action to stop this habit that is affecting communication or social skills, if they are having trouble with pronouncing words, or if it is causing problems with oral development. However, it is not as important to get your child to give up this habit if it is not causing any problems.
Dr Vivek Sharma

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