Many children suck their thumbs or fingers, some starting from in the womb.  In fact, you may even own a 20 week scan with your baby with his or her thumb firmly wedged in their mouth!  The habit normally starts from early babyhood and it is a comforter, as you know.  It becomes so habit forming that you might find your child using it to soothe them to sleep, when they have been naughty, if they are scared or even most of the time you spend with them – and they may not even know they are doing it.  We have plenty of babies and children at Shannon ChildCare who thumb-suck and while we don’t prevent them doing this, we do get parents asking us what our approach would be if we were parenting their child.

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The problem is that incessant sucking will cause dental issues and can misshape teeth and gums, not to mention inhibit jaw growth.  A paediatric dentist will tell you that the earlier you can stop thumb sucking the better.  Not only that, continuing to suck thumbs or fingers well into childhood (and beyond in some cases) causes the skin round the area that is constantly wet to swell, blister and become tender not to mention unsightly and even triggers eczema.

So what do you do to prevent thumb-sucking?   The good news is that if you manage to prevent your child from this habit up to age 4 then they will adapt quickly and find other sources of comfort.  After 4 there is more evidence of this becoming very habitual and harder to “kick the habit”.  It used to be thought that if children suck thumbs before their adult teeth arrive then damage to palate and teeth would be at a minimum but more recent studies show that actually, damage is done.  Sucking puts pressure on the upper jaw and even on the soft tissue in the mouth, this means that the upper jaw narrows and teeth then don’t meet properly together, as well as teeth not sitting in the right place it can cause speech problems, lisps and phonics not sounding properly.  If not corrected, children can end up with speech therapy long before braces are fitted!  If it becomes severe, children can end up with a cross bite meaning that they cannot chew and eat their food properly – this can affect the mouth and jaw growing properly.

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Your child will almost definitely stop themselves, in time, but sometimes it is years before they decide they are too old to suck their thumb in public, if you can stop it before they reach their latter childhood years then you will be doing them a favour – remember, no pain, no gain!

My tips are as follows:

–          Don’t be confrontational and tell them “right, that’s it, no more thumb”, but do recognise when they are not sucking their thumb or fingers and tell them how grown up they are and how good it is that they are NOT sucking!  Praise is always welcome to a child.

–          If they are scared or have had an accident don’t stop them sucking as they need to do this to comfort them, by stopping them you will be causing them more internal pain!

–          Try and limit them to sucking only at home or at bedtime for example, so explain to your child that it isn’t nice to suck their thumb particularly when you are out – plant the seeds and hopefully they will start reducing the time they spend sucking their thumb.

–          Your child may not even know when they are doing it as it is so habitual so when they do suck their thumb ask them if they realise they are doing it.  If your child doesn’t realise then maybe find something else they would like to do like a cuddle – distract them.

–          Ask them if their favourite superhero sucks their thumb!  Let them digest the answer and it may well trigger them (even weeks later) to stop.

–          Don’t bother with a glove or similar – even the horrible varnish you can buy, this will cause them upset, they will remove the glove and even get used to the taste of the product you paint on their thumb or finger.

–          Reward and sticker charts work beautifully, so for days when thumb sucking is minimal, give them stickers and if they manage not to suck at all (or only at night for example) reward them with a treat.  So use incentives.

Do remember they will grow out of it eventually, teeth can be corrected but if you are noticing severity in bite problems and jaw issues then it may be time for the dentist to have a chat too – this can often help push your child to give up!

Dentist Examining Little Boys Teeth --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

For more advice and help with thumb sucking please contact me, Alyson at Shannon ChildCare www.shannonchildcare.co.uk.

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