7 points to help your child stop thumb sucking

A natural habit

When it comes to babies and toddlers, thumb or finger sucking rarely gives cause for concern. Sucking is comforting for babies and helps them self-soothe. As we have discussed in previous posts, babies often develop this natural, instinctive habit before they're born. Any issues resulting from the practice tend to arise later, usually as the adult teeth cut through.

Biting facts

Dentists use the term 'bite' to describe the position of the upper and lower teeth when the jaw is closed. If a person's bite is correct, the upper teeth overlap the lower teeth comfortably. When the teeth jut forward, or there is a gap between them when the jaw is closed, this is an incorrect bite, often referred to as a malocclusion.

Although malocclusions such as overbite and open bite can occur for other reasons, prolonged sucking habits are a leading cause. For this reason, thumb and finger sucking habits need to monitoring by parents or guardians. Often children will end the habit naturally, but sometimes gentle intervention is required. The challenge is deciphering if and when to intervene. Generally, there is no need to encourage your baby or toddler to stop thumb or finger sucking, but certainly, the habit should be discouraged before the adult teeth cut through.

Time to quit?

There is debate worldwide concerning the correct age to discourage sucking habits, ranging from three to five years. Some experts advise intervention at three years because the practice limits social development and speech for some toddlers. Others feel it is reasonable for a child to suck their thumb or fingers until they reach five years. The main reason for this is that children do not usually cut their adult teeth before this age.

The third suggestion is that children be discouraged from thumb sucking around four years. This suggestion is viewed by many as a happy and workable compromise. Often parents are concerned about playground bullying due to the habit, particularly in countries such as those in the U.K, where most children start school around their fourth birthday. Equally, many consider it better to discourage the habit of thumb sucking at this age to avoid the risks if their child has their adult teeth cut early. Ultimately, parents who recognize and understand their child's needs better than anyone must decide the best time to encourage an end to the habit.

Having decided to encourage your child away from their sucking habits...

the following points may help you support your child.

  • During those precious baby days, unless they have an infection or other painful condition like eczema or sucking blisters that require healing time, you are safe to ignore the habit. They are likely to break the habit by themselves, between 2 and 4 years of age.
  • If your child shows no signs of ending the habit naturally by the appropriate time, there is no need to panic and rush to intervene. Before doing so, observe how your child is sucking their thumb or fingers. How they suck will help you decide when to intervene because children who rest the thumb in their mouths are less likely to develop dental issues than a child who is an active, vigorous thumb sucker. Children who merely rest the thumb in their mouth are also more likely to end the habit naturally in due course.
  • If your child is a vigorous, active thumb or finger sucker, positive reinforcement is the next step worth trying towards breaking the habit. Explain to your child why it's so important that they don't suck their thumbs. Be careful not to use scare tactics or imply they are bad for having the habit, as this can have the opposite effect. It is better to encourage your child to decide to stop rather than leave them feeling pressured. Always offer them gentle reminders rather than scold when you notice a thumb or finger in your child's mouth, and praise them heartily when they stop. You could use a reward chart too and help them think of a grand prize for their success.
  • If your child continues to struggle to break the habit, try to identify the cause or triggers for their practice. Do they suck in times of stress or boredom? If you notice a pattern emerging, you may be able to help your child by offering extra reassurance or by encouraging activities that keep their hands otherwise occupied. Such gentle distraction or comfort may be all your child needs to help them succeed and stop thumb sucking.
  • If, despite all your efforts, your child continues to suck their thumb, now would be the time to try preventative measures. You might find it helpful to try one of the bitter-tasting liquids sold by your pharmacist. Once painted on your child's nails, the taste of these liquids can be enough to make your child remove their thumb from their mouth as fast as they popped it in.
  • Nail paints do not work for every child, unfortunately. Some children love bitter tastes (as many sweet manufacturers have now realized). My son would beg me to use the nail paint so that he could savor the flavor! If this is the case for your child, it may help if you book an appointment with their dentist. Your dentist will be able to recognize if your child's teeth are showing signs of malocclusion and will usually be happy to have a short chat with your child to explain why they need to stop thumb sucking. If your dentist deems it appropriate, they may suggest having a tongue crib fitted. A tongue crib physically prevents thumb sucking. Others may recommend thumb guards.                                                                                                                                                                                           
  • You might prefer thumb guards to tongue cribs if you find yourself at the stage where a preventative measure is required. Thumb Guards and finger guards are also physical products to prevent thumb sucking. The most apparent difference between a thumb guard and a tongue crib is a tongue crib fits in the mouth, whereas thumb guards are worn on the hand. They both prevent the child from forming a sucking seal between their thumb and the roof of the mouth. Thumb Guards are great for children who would not cope with a device in the mouth. Another difference between a tongue crib and a thumb guard is a tongue crib remains permanently attached to the molars at the back of the mouth. It is attached to the teeth by two rings. The rings connect to a small cage or gate positioned behind the front teeth.

Thumb guards are different because they do not usually remain in place constantly. Some thumb guards prevent the elbow from bending so that the thumb cannot reach the mouth. Others, like our fabric thumb guards, are a physical reminder not to suck the thumb as well as a physical barrier to prevent the comforting sensation of sucking. While some designs should be worn for extended periods, all thumb guards are removable when needed.

There are pros and cons for all methods employed to break thumb-sucking habits. Ultimately the important thing is to find a solution that positively works for your child. Allow your child to be part of the decision, give them choices and encouragement, and avoid punishing them for the habit. Be their cheerleader, and they will break that habit with confidence.

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