Lancaster Dental

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All About Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking appears to be a natural habit of children in all parts of the world. Sucking the thumb is soothing for a small child, and many children continue this habit for comfort and security into the early school years. Thumb sucking is most prevalent in children under two, and most children give up the habit on their own by age four.

Thumb sucking by itself is not a cause or symptom of physical or psychological problems. It is not known why some children suck their thumbs longer than others. More girls than boys suck their thumbs beyond age two. Researchers speculate that boys receive stronger negative messages from parents and peers that thumb sucking is infantile and not acceptable. Thumb sucking offers security to a child, but this behavior does not imply that the child is insecure. Most children have some sort of self-comforting ritual that may involve sucking the thumb, fingers, or a pacifier, pulling or twisting their hair, or stroking or sucking a soft toy or blanket.

Why do some children suck their thumbs?

Babies have natural rooting and sucking reflexes, which can cause them to put their thumbs or fingers into their mouths — sometimes even before birth. Because thumb sucking makes babies feel secure, some babies might eventually develop a habit of thumb sucking when they need soothing or going to sleep.

How long does thumb sucking usually last?

Many children stop sucking their thumbs on their own, often by age 6 or 7 months or between ages 2 and 4.

But even a child who’s stopped sucking his or her thumb might go back to the behavior during times of stress.

When should I intervene?

Thumb sucking isn’t usually a concern until a child’s permanent teeth come in. At this point, thumb sucking might begin to affect the roof of the mouth (palate) or how the teeth line up. The risk of dental problems is related to how often, how long, and how intensely your child sucks on his or her thumb.

Although some experts recommend addressing sucking habits before age 3, the American Academy of Pediatrics says treatment is usually limited to children who continue thumb sucking after turning 5.

What can I do to encourage my child to stop thumb-sucking?

Most people need to combine several methods to find success:

  • Talk:  Always start by talking to your child about why thumb sucking is a bad habit. Talking alone doesn’t usually break the habit, but it can help your child decide that he or she wants to quit. Positive motivation to quit is half the battle. Some things to talk about with your child include:
    • Germs: Thumb and finger-sucking spreads germs and makes people sick.
    • Teeth: Sucking pushes teeth forward and can make you look funny, and you might need braces.
    • Teasing: Other kids will think you are still a baby or might tease.
    • Speech: As long as you suck your thumb, it is hard to learn how to speak the right way. You might sound funny.  
  • YouTube: It worked for us. One night we showed our daughter about six short YouTube videos about thumb sucking. In the middle of one video, she announced she was all done sucking her thumb. That was the turning point, the moment at which she decided for herself that she wanted us to help her stop. Sometimes kids just really need to hear about bad habits from someone other than mom or dad. YouTube is a cheap and easy way to accomplish this.  
  • Chewelry: Jewelry you can chew, or chewelry, is a good substitute to help a toddler stop sucking without losing the true pleasure they get from the oral stimulation. There are many options in many colors on Amazon and other sites, most about $10.  
  • Find your child’s favorite thumb-sucking times: Watching TV and sleeping are two common times when kids fall back into their sucking habits. Identify your child’s problem times and then have your child help you devise a quitting plan that focuses on these times. If nighttime is a problem, try putting socks on your hands before bed and attaching the socks to pajama sleeves with safety pins. If watching TV is a problem, try turning off the TV for 5 or 10 minutes every time your child is caught sucking.  
  • Sticker chart or positive reward system: Make a sticker chart and provide lots of praise and positive rewards for success. At first, your child might need a sticker for every hour he or she goes without sucking. If she goes a whole day, she might need a special reward such as extra books at bedtime. Eventually, you should be able to get to a daily sticker chart. Once your child makes it to about two weeks without sucking, you are probably home-free.
  • Praise, all day: Find a way to remind yourself or your child’s caregiver to praise your child for not sucking at least once an hour. Consider setting an alarm or reminder on your phone.  
  • Bad-tasting nail polish: Before you crucify me in the comments and accuse me of child abuse, I want you to know that “yucky nail polish” really worked for my daughter. Even as a 4-year-old, she asked to have her nails painted nightly. These products are primarily intended to stop nail-biting, but many people find they help with thumb and finger sucking, too. We had to alternate brands, though, because our daughter just became accustomed to the taste after a few days. There are many brands. You may have to find the right one that works for your child or find alternate products.
    • Pros:
      • Affordable, usually $9-$15 on Amazon  
      • Clear, quick-drying, with little mess
      • An effective reminder for kids who are motivated to quit but need a reminder  
      • Leave hands free without obstructions or the annoyance of gloves or finger devices
      • Private — no one needs to know you are wearing yucky-tasting nail polish
    • Cons:
      • Toddlers will suck the polish off or get used to the taste. My 4-year-old tells me she likes the taste, now.  If this happens, try alternating brands.  
      • Adults can get it in their mouths too, by kissing a thumb-sucking toddler or accidentally getting it on their fingers. It tastes bad and the taste sticks with you for a few hours.
      • Children who are just starting to stop sucking will have lots of moments when they get the yucky taste in their mouth, causing crying and misery that isn’t easily consoled.  
      • Some brands will wash off easily, especially “Thumb,” which is the most affordable brand at $6 and available at Walgreens and other major pharmacies.
  • Plastic thumb or finger covers: Dr. Thumb, Dr. Finger, and T Guard are the leading brands of plastic thumb or finger covers. . They are highly rated and most kids can’t get them off.  If you keep them on for about two weeks, your child will have kicked the habit. The problem is that they inhibit hand use, making it hard for kids to play or feed themselves. If your child will suck thumb or fingers on either hand, they will need two devices, rendering them unable to do much for themselves. You will also double your price.  
  • Cloth thumb or finger covers or gloves: Less expensive are several brands of gloves and cloth finger covers such as the Thumb Buster. Mitten Sleeves are a brand of half-shirt that has long sleeves with mittens attached. These products allow kids to be more active with their hands. Most are easily removed, which is why they seem to be less effective. A safety pin over the velcro closure can make them harder to get off. But if you’re going this far, why not just use socks or regular kids’ stretch gloves safety pinned to shirt sleeves?
  • Ace bandage to the elbow: An ace bandage wrapped at the elbow can make it less comfortable for a child to bend the elbow enough to get fingers in the mouth. Twisting the ace wrap a few times in the crook of the elbow helps bunch up the fabric there. This makes it even less comfortable to bend. The ace wrap keeps hands unobstructed and is less annoying than gloves or hand covers. We successfully used an ace wrap together with bad-tasting nail polish. The ace wrap helped remind our daughter not to get the yucky nail polish in her mouth. Without the ace wrap, she had too many nail polish crying episodes. Without the nail polish, though, the ace wrap just wasn’t enough. Ace wraps are very affordable, about $3-$6 each, and can be worn under clothing. It does take a few tries to learn how to wrap the elbow just right. Also, kids can get them off easily. It may help to safety pin the ace bandage to make it harder to remove.  
  • Nipit Hand Stopper: This device is an improvement on the ace bandage. It prevents the elbow from bending enough to get the fingers or thumb in the mouth. It is easier to put on and harder to get off than an ace wrap.  Many people find success with this device alone and don’t need any other techniques. But kids are less functional with the Nipit. They can’t feed themselves, for example. It is also pricey at about $30, available online.  

If you’re stuck and things aren’t working…

Try to figure out if your child has anxiety that hasn’t been addressed. Continue using praise and positive reinforcement all day. Offer praise even if your child’s success is only due to a device such as the Nipit or Dr. Thumb. Get all childcare providers on the same page about the plan, and be persistent.