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Thumb Sucking

Article written by Dr. Leona Kotlyar - highly regarded pediatric dentist in Brooklyn, NY
Dr. Leona Kotlyar writes about thumb sucking habit in children

Thumb sucking is a natural reflex for children. Sucking on thumbs, fingers, pacifiers or other objects make your baby feel secure and happy. Young children may also suck to soothe themselves and help them fall asleep. Because thumb sucking is soothing to babies, some might eventually develop a habit of thumb sucking when they're bored, tired or even anxious.
However, after the permanent teeth come in, sucking may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth, producing an anterior open bite where the front teeth do not come together. It can also cause changes in the roof of the mouth, constricting the palatal group. Pacifiers can affect the teeth essentially the same ways as sucking fingers and thumbs, but it is often an easier habit to break. The intensity of the sucking is a factor that determines whether or not dental problems may result. If children rest their thumbs passively in their mouths, they are less likely to have dental changes than those who vigorously suck their thumbs.
Children usually stop sucking between the ages of two and four years old, or by the time the permanent front teeth are ready to erupt. If you notice changes in your child’s primary teeth, or are concerned about your child’s thumb sucking consult your dentist.
According to the Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, you want to start encouraging your child to stop thumb sucking before the age of 2 and have them actually stop by the age of 24-28 months in order to have the least amount of possible affects on the teeth and jaws.
Tips for helping your child stop thumb sucking:

  • Positive Reinforcement: Praise your child for not sucking their thumbs. Rewards such as extra things your child enjoys might help as well.
        -- Sticker charts – designate amount of days (= stickers) child should not suck thumb and then that equals a prize (i.e. 5 stickers = prize)
        -- Don’t provide negative reinforcement by criticizing or embarrassing your child that might only build up additionally fears and prolong the habit.
  • Identify the Triggers: Children often suck their thumbs when feeling insecure or in stressful situations. Focus on correcting the cause of the anxiety and provide comfort to your child by reassuring them or hugging. You might also want to use a different object that they can substitute their thumb for, such as a stuffed toy or blanket.
  • For an older child, involve him or her in choosing the method of stopping that will work best for them.
  • The pediatric dentist can offer encouragement to your child and explain what could happen to their teeth if they do not stop sucking.

If the above tips don’t work, remind the child of their habit by bandaging the thumb or putting a sock on the hand at night. Your dentist or pediatrician might also recommend a bitter nail polish to coat the thumb such as THUM or Mavala Stop. Thumb guards can be purchased as well which is a plastic appliance placed on the thumb in order to prevent your child from placing it in the mouth. The use of a mouth appliance can be imminent in the most severe situations but this is reserved for older children.
Dr. Leona Kotlyar, D.D.S.
5th Avenue Dental Associates
7815 5th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11209
Tel: (347) 356-6863