The Trouble with Thumb Sucking

ID-10057556A perfectly normal part of a child’s development, thumb sucking ranks next to sleeping and eating as one of a baby’s favorite activities. Your baby may even enjoy sucking so much that you often find her sucking on her fingers, hands, or favorite pacifier.

While this adorable habit is perfectly fine for your littlest ones, thumb sucking can become problematic if a child continues the practice past a certain age. Fortunately, most kids stop the sucking habit on their own between the ages of three to six. However, every child develops differently, and some may need a little more help kicking the habit than others.

To help you understand when why your child likes to suck his thumb and when the habit can start to become a problem, here are a few answers to common questions parents have about thumb sucking.

Why do babies suck their thumbs?

Babies are born with a natural urge to suck, which typically begins to decrease after the age of six months. However, many babies continue use thumb sucking as a means of calming themselves. For many babies and toddlers, thumb sucking can become a habit they use to comfort themselves when feelings afraid, restless, hungry, sleepy, quiet, or bored.

In some rare cases, children over the age of five begin thumb sucking in response to an emotional problem or other disorder, such as anxiety.

What problems can thumb sucking cause?

If your child is under the age of four, thumb sucking doesn’t usually present a problem.  Children who continue to habitually or intensely suck their thumb after they turn four or five place themselves at risk of developing speech or dental problems. This becomes especially true for children six and older who haven’t given up the sucking habit.

Extended thumb sucking can cause a child’s teeth to develop misaligned – a condition referred to as malocclusion – or thrust outward. While these types of problems usually correct themselves once a child kicks the habit, the longer children continue to thumb suck, the more likely it becomes they will need orthodontic treatments to correct their bite.

Children who develop speech problems due to prolonged thumb sucking typically have difficulty saying their Ts and Ds, lisping, and thrusting their tongue out when speaking.

When should parents seek treatment for thumb sucking?

Parents of younger children can often ignore their child’s thumb sucking, but should begin to monitor how frequently he or she continues to suck after the age of three.

Children may need treatment for thumb sucking when they:

  • Pull their hair in addition to sucking, especially if the child is between the ages of one and two years old.
  • Continue to suck frequently or with great force after the age of four or five. The development of a callus is one sign that a child intensely sucks his or her thumb.
  • Ask a parent for help stopping.
  • Develop speech or dental problems as a direct result of their sucking habit.
  • Begin to feel ashamed or embarrassed by the habit or other kids start to tease them about sucking.

How do you help a child to stop thumb sucking?

While basic home treatment methods can help put a stop to most thumb sucking habits, children over the age of five may need to receive aid from a doctor.

Home treatment methods include parents establishing rules and providing distractions to help curb the habit. Parents may find it useful to limit where and for how long their child is allow to suck his thumb. Parents should also consider putting away any stuffed animals, blankets, or toys a child carries around with him when sucking his thumb, as these items probably carry an association with thumb sucking for your child. Placing gloves over a child’s hands or wrapping both thumbs in adhesive tape or cloth may help remind your child not to suck.

Parents need to offer their children plenty of praise for not sucking, and they shouldn’t overreact should a child have a relapse. Keep in mind that most kids use thumb sucking as a calming mechanism whenever they feel frightened or anxious. Yelling at a child for sucking will only cause her to feel more insecure about the habit, and could result in her sucking more often to compensate.

Should at home treatments fail to help your little ones kick the sucking habit or if your worried their sucking may be hurting their teeth, make sure to ask either Dr. Mo or G the next time you visit Must Love Kids.

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