Dr Saba Fouad Hussain Senior Lecturer & Orthodontist, Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Teknologi MARA
Babies are born with the natural instinct to suck their thumbs. This is why we always see images of babies with their thumbs inside their mouths – they have been doing this ever since they were in their mother’s womb. This is why thumb sucking can be one of those‘bad habits’ which are most difficult to stop.
We refer to thumb sucking in this article, but the information also applies to a child who prefers sucking other fingers of his or her hand.
Why the habit?
Children suck their thumb as a way to seek relief and comfort when they are stressed, upset, hungry, tired or sleepy.
Most children give up the habit before the age of 5 years, often by themselves as they become self-conscious and wish to avoid being teased by their peers. However, there are children who may continue with the habit unless their parents help them break it.
When should parents step in?
It depends, actually, on how intense and how often the child sucks his or her thumb as well as how old the child is.
If the habit persists until the child’s permanent teeth appear, thumb sucking may affect the normal shape of the roof of the mouth and the arrangement of the child’s teeth. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should seek intervention or treatment for children who are still sucking their thumbs at the age of 5, as their permanent teeth will start coming out when they turn 6.
Speech problems like lisping and unclear pronunciation are likely to occur as well. Other problems are associated with the child’s personal hygiene. Children frequently do not wash their hands before sucking on their thumbs, so they may end up with harmful bacteria and viruses that can cause tummy pain and infections.
Not all thumb sucking is ‘dangerous’, though. Passive thumb sucking is less likely to cause dental problems, especially when it becomes less frequent as the child turns 4.
If your child has this habit, therefore, do not panic. Observe the intensity and pattern of your child’s habit. If your child sucks his or her thumb vigorously (with obvious sucking sound and forceful movement of the muscles of the cheeks), then it may be worth taking steps to gently help your child break the habit.
What can parents do?
- Involve the child. It is very important to explain to your child why it is necessary to stop sucking his or her thumb (explain the problems that can happen) and how the habit can be stopped. You are more likely to succeed if your child is willing to work with you.
- Identify the reasons. It is possible that your child is using thumb sucking as a way to get more attention from the adults. If you believe that your child is doing it because of this reason, ignoring the behaviour might be helpful.
- Keep the child busy with activities that require using both hands like arts and craft.
- Have a reward system. Draw a ‘contract’ between you and your child. The contract will state that your child will discontinue the habit within a specified period of time, and in return, he or she will receive a reward. Offering a reward, even for stopping the habit over a short time, is often the best way to change your child’s behaviour. Gradually increase the ‘no thumb sucking’ time to a month and offer a bigger reward.
- The rewards do not have to be expensive toys and such, of course. They can be anything from a simple hug to extra story during bedtime. Special rewards could be family trips to the grandparents’ place, a park or a beach. Nowadays, there are many story books about children overcoming bad habits (including, thumb sucking) that can help encourage your child to stop.
- Be motivational and supportive. You can motivate your child by sharing stories or cartoons of children who successfully quit sucking their thumbs, for example. Telling your child to move the thumb out of his or her mouth from time to time will certainly help but be gentle when doing this. Scolding or criticising them, especially in front of others, may do more harm than good.
- Reminder treatments may be useful. These are devices that cover the child’s thumb to actively discourage thumb sucking. Some examples are:
- Plasters or band-aids
- Gloves or socks – while normal ones will do just fine, there are special gloves that can be purchased from pharmacies for this purpose.
- Natural astringents (e.g. bitter gourd juice) or commercial astringents (e.g. bitter or spicy nail polish) – these may work for some children, Commercial astringents are usually not recommended due to the presence of chemical ingredients that the child would end up swallowing.
When should parents seek help
Most people may not realise this, but a dentist can help with a child’s thumb-sucking habit. So, consult your dentist if you notice any of the following signs:
- Persistent thumb sucking after the age of 5
- Vigorous, frequent sucking pattern
- Any noticeable change in the appearance of the mouth, tongue or teeth.
- Child’s thumb becomes red, cracked or chapped
- Infections under and around the nail of sucking digit.
Your dentist can also offer special orthodontic appliances such as dental devices (which are designed to fit your child’s mouth) to help you with your child’s thumb-sucking habit.
Some things your child can do to break the habit
Keep the hands busy
- Play ball games (e.g. toss a ball from one hand to another)
- Knit or tie knots on a piece of cloth/string
- Make fun things out of clay or plasticine
- Draw and paint
- Play with a pet
Keep the mouth busy
- Nibble on a piece of fruit or vegetable
- Learn to whistle (this will keep the child busy!)
- Count the number of teeth in one’s mouth using the tongue
- Play a flute or recorder