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Tips on Breaking the Thumb Sucking Habit

Tips on Breaking the Thumb Sucking Habit

Sunday, April 2, 2017 - 09:59

Orthodontist and Co-Founder of The Thumb Sucking Clinic Dr Runa Mowla-Copley shares her tips for helping your child kick their thumb sucking habit.

Like most new parents, I was grateful when my daughter discovered her thumb in her first few months. 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’.

Is Thumb Sucking Normal?

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.

Does thumb sucking cause any problems?

Thumb sucking has the following effects on the mouth and teeth: 

  • Upper front teeth stick out
  • Lower front teeth move inward
  • Anterior open bite where the upper and lower front teeth do not meet
  • Narrowing of the upper arch which leads to the development of a crossbite

Persistent thumb sucking can lead to speech problems such as lisping 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 sucking their thumb? 

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 thumbs rather than scolding them when they are. Progress charts can work well with young children – when your child goes a whole week without sucking, reward him with a prize. And as most children suck their thumbs when they are tired or bored, keeping their hands busy helps! For an older child, involve him or her in choosing the method of stopping. Visit your dentist or orthodontist – it’s amazing what a few words from an expert to your child can do! I often get parents call up the next day to say that whatever I said to their child has magically made them break their habit overnight. Most children are unaware how their little thumbs can affect their mouth and teeth and react in a very positive way when this is demonstrated to them.

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. 

Remember the breaking of a habit takes time, patience and plenty of encouragement!

Dr Runa Mowla-Copley is an Orthodontist and author of Charlie’s Thumb’ a wonderfully illustrated book about 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.  

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