Babies love to suck. It’s a natural reflex, starting as early as in the womb. For young children, thumb sucking is a useful pastime. It calms them down, helps them sleep and keeps them entertained when boredom sets in. Many children stop sucking their thumbs by 6-7 months or later by 2-4 years. A child who has stopped thumb sucking can easily restart it in times of stress.

Lots of children suck their thumbs without any untoward effects. Thumb sucking becomes a concern when a child starts kindergarten, as he may get teased or bullied because of it. At that time also, well-meaning adults may worsen the habit in their bid to get the child to stop. Otherwise, it is important for the child to stop it before permanent teeth set in, at around age 6, because thumb sucking may then affect the roof of the mouth and the alignment of teeth, leading to overbite and other abnormal teeth alignment, and trouble pronouncing ‘s’ and other tongue-tipped sounds. A thumb that is sucked frequently may also develop chapped skin, calluses and finger nail infections.

How to get a child to stop thumb sucking

Successful treatment of thumb sucking depends on how early the intervention is started, and the severity of any consequent deformities.

Have the talk

A child who understands why he needs to stop thumb sucking will more likely be motivated to stop.  The parent should explain that while it would be great to have the child beat the habit as fast as possible, he is not expected to be able to stop in a day, because if he is under great pressure to stop, it may be more difficult to stop.

Behavioural management

Once the child understands and agrees to stop thumb sucking, the next thing is for the parent to try to ignore it as much as possible. The parent should rather reward the child for the times he is not thumb sucking. The rewards can be tangible, or can be praise for the periods the child goes without sucking his thumb. Gentle reminders are acceptable, but scolding, criticising, ridiculing or pulling a child’s thumb out of his mouth may worsen the habit.

Avoid triggers

Thumb sucking is often worsened by being anxious, being overly tired, or frustration. These triggers should be identified and minimised to help the child to beat the habit.

See your dentist

Most children will stop thumb sucking with the appropriate support from the adults around them. However, if this does not happen and there is no indication that the child is sucking less and less, and dental issues begin to appear, then the help of a dentist should be sought.

There are appliances like palatal cribs, rakes and lingual spurs that may be employed. There are also appliances that prevent the patient from putting the thumb into the mouth.

If nothing works

If nothing works, there is still the option of seeing a child psychologist. Before then though, the parent may just decide to step back, take a breather and examine his approach, as putting too much pressure on the child to stop thumb sucking may just worsen the habit.

Co-written by Gabriel Ketemepi, Dental Surgeon, and BCC team

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