Pediatric Dental Tips for Breaking a Child’s Thumb-Sucking Habit

A common pediatric dental issues that parents and children face is thumb sucking. While it's normal for very young children, this practice can be problematic if it continues into the preschool years and beyond. Fortunately, there are ways to eliminate the habit for better dental and overall health.

The risks of prolonged thumb sucking

Thumb sucking may seem harmless and even endearing in babies and toddlers, but the habit can cause serious issues down the road, including:
  • More illnesses from increased germ exposure
  • Problems with speech development
  • Misaligned teeth
  • Abnormal jaw or palate development
  • Lower self-esteem from ridicule, shame, or bullying
To prevent these unnecessary problems and expensive or painful dental work, finger and thumb sucking should cease completely by age four.

Tips for breaking the habit

Since long-term thumb-sucking can be harmful, parents should discuss this habit with a pediatric dental professional and follow the recommendations for intervention. These helpful tips can make the process easier.

Stick to positive reinforcement

It is never helpful to shame or criticize a child for unwanted behaviors, as this can actually make thumb sucking worse. Instead, offer plenty of praise and positive affirmation when a child is successful at self-correcting or limiting thumb sucking. Using a sticker chart or reward system as an extra incentive can be beneficial for some children.

Talk with kids about the negative side effects

Most young children do not understand why it is important to stop thumb-sucking. Many children around this age can understand the negative side effects when they're explained in a clear and kind way. A heartfelt conversation about germs, pediatric dental health, and social situations can help kids develop the resolve to break the habit.

Provide alternative options for comfort

Offer sympathy and support when a child is feeling overwhelmed by the need to thumb suck. However, do not be tempted to give in; instead, offer healthy alternatives to help reduce their anxiety and discomfort. Have a child hold a favorite stuffed animal, listen to calming music, read a book, or sit and snuggle together.

Try to keep the child occupied

Kids who are busy and engaged with hands-on activities have less time for thumb sucking. If a child is occupied for most of the day with board games, crafts, sensory play, outdoor play, and even games on a mobile device, it can help lessen the urge to suck.

Try a guard or nail polish

If other methods are unsuccessful, it may be time to try a thumb guard or bitter nail polish to control thumb sucking. These methods make it difficult or impossible for the child to engage in this behavior. Parents should be prepared for resistance, frustration, and a few tears along the way. However, this approach can be helpful, especially at night when it is not possible to continuously monitor a child's actions.

Frequently asked questions about thumb sucking

Here are the answers to questions about thumb sucking.

How does thumb sucking start?

Thumb sucking starts as a vital reflex that is present in all babies. It helps them with nursing. The reflex is instinctive; ultrasound pictures of developing babies often show them sucking their thumbs in the womb. All healthy newborns exhibit the sucking reflex.

Why is my child still sucking their thumb?

It is normal for children to suck their thumbs past the nursing period. It serves as self-soothing behavior and provides them with comfort. Children at this stage are still learning how to regulate their emotions, so they often use the only tools that they have, which can be sucking their thumbs.

Should I be worried about my child’s thumb sucking?

While thumb sucking is perfectly normal for children under six, it can lead to developmental issues like poor teeth alignment, speed impediments, and speech delays. Most children stop thumb sucking on their own as they grow older, but those who do not are at a higher risk of developing complications. Other signs that might indicate that a child’s thumb-sucking could be a problem include:
  • The child hiding their thumb sucking
  • A callous developing on the child’s thumb due to thumb-sucking, as this might be a sign that the child is sucking their thumb with excess vigor or too often
  • The child pulls on other parts of their body while thumb-sucking, as this might be a sign of anxiety disorder

Conclusion

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