Thumb Sucking - a tale of five thumbs.

Child sucker her thumb

My aversion to the drool

My daughter’s thumb-sucking habits were more than I could bear. I fixed her my hardest stare from across the table. She had barely swallowed the last spoonful of cereal from her bowl and already her thumb was firmly inserted into her mouth. I admit I would not have been so objectionable had she enjoyed her habit quietly. Alas, my daughter’s habit was as animated as her character. There could be no sucking without slurping and no slurping without dribbling.

I cringed as a trail of saliva trickled slowly down her arm. She watched it herself for a moment, seemingly transfixed by its journey, before wiping her arm on the table cloth. My stomach lurched. I was five months pregnant. I had yet to realize the damage she might do to her teeth. It was as much as I could do to cope with the smell of saliva on her skin.

More than half of my children sucked their thumbs

She was not my first thumb-sucking child. Neither was she my last as it turned out. Of my eight children, five succumbed to the long term habit.  She was, however, my first ‘thumb addict’ to suck like it was an Olympic sport. Although her thumb at times developed sores, she simply refused to remove it from her mouth. As such, not only was that little digit permanently wrinkled and soggy, to me it truly stank!

Pregnancy hormones versus thumb sucking

Of course, I knew my personal struggle with her thumb-sucking habits would end. My highly tuned sense of smell was the result of surging pregnancy hormones. In my case, the culprit was estrogen. This hormone, whilst invisible to myself, allowed every scent within ten yards of me to launch an all-out war on my nose.

To be fair on my daughter, she was not, therefore, my only trigger. Even the smell of soap made me gag. The difference between her habit and soap was that soap did not make me gag at the sight of it. The thought of someone taking a wash did not leave me knelt by the loo. I only had to hear her slurp and breakfast was history. This issue went on to plague me in all subsequent pregnancies. By baby number six I would find myself hospitalized from dehydration.

Thumb sucking habits and the dentist

Dentists are also not fans of thumb sucking. Our dentist at that time was a kindly man who did not like to offend his patients. The children adored him. He would wave a finger in mock fury whenever he suspected a below-par tooth brushing effort, but he would always send children away with a lollipop in hand.

It was during one of our regular dental visits that our dentist revealed the truth.  He explained that my daughter’s thumb-sucking habits could no longer be considered harmless. What began as an act of self-comfort in the premature baby unit had become a threat to the position of her permanent teeth and jaw.

“Her teeth will become pushed forward” he explained. “Her jaw is already narrow. When her adult teeth cut there will not be room for them. They will cross one another and stick forward like a rabbit”

The dentist then turned to my daughter and suggested: “we might have to take out all your teeth”. She eyed him suspiciously for a moment before removing her thumb just long enough to ask whether the tooth fairy would still pay up.

The most surprising cure

More by miracle than a method, she finally gave up her thumb-sucking habits at the time her front baby teeth were preparing to fall out.  This had nothing to do with the hours we spent trying to reason with her. Neither was it the result of using tubes of bitter-tasting nail polish or other known practices. The cure came when she discovered that the act of thumb sucking hurt her loose teeth.

Her adult teeth did indeed cut through a little crooked. This was due to her narrow jaw. But she managed to avoid an overbite.

Continuing the trend

After my daughter, I gave birth to another son. He was also a thumb sucker, though his participation in the habit was not as fierce. In comparison to her, it seemed he only sucked occasionally. Perhaps he was a secret thumb sucker, sucking throughout the night. Regardless of how often his thumb was in his mouth, he taught us a valuable lesson. Whilst it is more likely with ‘vigorous thumb suckers,’ all thumb sucking has the potential to cause malocclusion. He developed quite an overbite which affected his ability to eat. Fortunately for him, this was corrected through the use of braces. This was a great relief to us, particularly as the daughter of a friend required surgery.

My next determined thumb sucker, made the experience with my daughter seem like a Sunday stroll. This time the addict was our youngest son, though coincidentally like our daughter, his birth was premature.

A delayed thumb sucking habit

This son did not suck his thumb from birth, however. Due to his prematurity, he was reliant on a ventilator in order to breathe. His lungs were slow to improve so he also required this assistance for much longer than was first expected. As soon as he was stable enough to have the breathing tubes removed, his consultant provided him with a tiny green pacifier. Research had shown that the use of pacifiers was helpful for encouraging preemies to regulate their breathing. As our tiny boy would frequently turn blue, we were glad to try anything. He began thumb sucking at the time we finally weaned him from the pacifier!

Our son was almost seven years of age before his health really began to improve. Prior to that, he was frequently admitted to the hospital. He not only sucked his thumb and fingers, but he also sucked the corners of two favorite blankets and the ears of several soft bears. We hadn’t the mind to care at the time. We were just relieved he was still with us and believed it when doctors said his sucking habit might easily have saved his life on more than one occasion.

An age-old condition?

This was a far cry from the views of our ancestors. I remember reading once that between the 1870s and early 1900s much of the world’s medical professionals considered thumb sucking to be a very serious pathological matter. The ‘condition’ of thumb sucking was said not only to lead to ugly dental malformation but also some worrying sexual behavior.

The modern world recognizes the latter to be totally untrue, and the habit to be a natural behavior for a  baby. However, when it comes to malocclusion our ancestors were on target with their findings. Thumb and finger sucking does cause damage to the teeth and jaw structure, particularly after the permanent teeth cut through. Our son has a huge overbite to prove it.

Blunt therapy doesn’t work

I remember being mortified the first time our new dentist made reference to the issue. She was not the easiest dentist to relate to. Her approach, often brutal, left me wondering whether she enjoyed dentistry at all. My son climbed into the chair and opened his mouth in preparation. The dentist gazed down at his teeth for a few seconds before fixing me with a very stern frown. “Does he suck on his thumb?” she asked, “he has a massive overbite”.

I answered honestly that he had done so for quite some time and now found it a struggle to stop. I suppose I expected her to offer a little gentle, professional encouragement in reply. However, while I’m not certain whether her reaction was cultural or simply based on a more traditional view, she turned back to my son and commanded: “stop it, you’re getting ugly”.

I chose not to mention that his two little sisters were also thumb-suckers as they stared at me wide-eyed. Her approach did not benefit my son either. Feeling suddenly insecure, he sucked his fingers for the entire homeward journey!

The dawn of our thumb guards

Later, as my husband and I were formulating our battle plan for operation ‘thumbs out’, a dear friend made contact. Her children were also struggling to break their thumb-sucking habit and she had thought of a way we might help…

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