Thumb-Sucking and My Child’s Oral Health 

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thumb-suckingAmong habits children develop to self-soothe, thumb-sucking likely has the worst reputation. In fact, it’s also one of the most prevalent. Approximately 75% of children suck their thumbs or other fingers. That’s right, three out of four children. It turns out that thumb and finger sucking is a natural reflex that your child developed in the womb. 

All parents seek ways to soothe their children, whether it’s finding a favorite blanket, stuffed animal or woobie, but don’t be surprised or alarmed if your child’s best pacifier is a thumb or other digit. Children seek self-pacification for a number of reasons – hunger, fear, fatigue, even anxiety. Often they aren’t even aware that they are doing it, it’s just a natural reaction to external influences.

As a parent, there is no need to be alarmed. That said, there can always be too much of a good thing. Below are facts, tips, and strategies to address your child’s thumb-sucking habit.

Top Five Facts About Thumb-Sucking

  1. Triggers for thumb-sucking often include stress, hunger, boredom, and anxiety.
  2. Research suggests that thumb-sucking soothes children because it mimics the comfort experienced during breastfeeding.
  3. Babies have been observed sucking their thumbs in the womb.
  4. Thumb-sucking is only of concern to permanent teeth. The routine introduction of the thumb in the mouth can cause permanent teeth to grow forward, which will have bite complications and may require future orthodontic treatment.
  5. It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry ( that parents and other caregivers help children to give up thumb-sucking by the age of 3.

What things should I consider when it comes to thumb-sucking and my child’s oral development?

While a natural and common issue, thumb-sucking can cause problems for your children that you should watch out for. These problems can range from calluses, chapped skin, speech issues, and nail infection, to much more serious challenges affecting the development and growth of jaw and tooth alignment — all things that may result in braces or other restorative dentistry for your child down the road.

All this said, there’s no need to yank your kid’s hand away from their face every time they start sucking their thumb (in fact, that could be detrimental! See below for tips on how to encourage your child to give up thumb-sucking). As we mentioned above, children need an outlet to self-soothe. Research by the American Dental Association (ADA) suggests that age and intensity are the main elements to consider. Their research shows that thumb0-sucking isn’t something to seriously worry about until after the arrival of permanent teeth and that the majority of children give up thumb-sucking on their own between two and four years of age.

However, if your child is a very aggressive thumb-sucker, take note, since such activity could also harm baby teeth. Keep watch to make sure your child doesn’t have calluses or broken skin on their fingers, both indicators of overly aggressive thumb-sucking. If, on the other hand, your child is gently resting their thumb in their mouth, take advantage of and cherish the quiet that ensues!

thumb-suckingHow do I know when it’s time to help my child kick the habit?

Most experts agree that if your child isn’t aggressively sucking and hasn’t yet gone to preschool, the best thing to do is simply ignore the habit. Chances are good they’ll move on to other self-soothing habits. If, however, your child is over the age of four and still sucking their thumb, its best to start engaging in a strategy to help them give up the habit.

Signs it’s time to help your child kick the habit

  • If your child starts becoming embarrassed around peers or directly asks for help.
  • Aggressive sucking that leads to the development of calluses, infections and raw or chapped skin.
  • Development of speech problems, including lisping and difficulty pronouncing hard consonants.
  • If your child has developing teeth that are visibly misaligned or shows other developmental issues in their oral growth.

Tips to Kick the Habit

First, keep in mind the whole reason your child is sucking their thumb in the first place is for security and comfort. Pressuring the child constantly to break the habit, or punishing or shaming them for sucking their thumb will likely do far more damage than good. Keep an eye on when they are sucking their thumb to find the reasons they seek solace and address those issues instead of attacking the habit outright.

For instance, do they most often suck their thumb when they are tired? Increase the duration of nap time or move bedtime earlier. Do they suck their thumb when hungry? Carry snacks and let them nibble on something small to keep thumbs out of mouths.

Likewise, boredom can be overcome by providing a small toy to keep little hands busy, and creating a quiet, safe and comfortable space can soothe an anxious child. 

Always remember to use positive reinforcement rather than punishment or shaming. Unless there are skin irritations like callouses or raw skin avoid the use of gloves or bandaids, which can be perceived by the child as punishment.

The best tip of all – make it fun! Children love games, and creating a fun environment to help them kick the habit will work wonders. Celebrate and reward successes. Perhaps use craft time to make a calendar with your child, put a gold star on every day that they avoid thumb-sucking, then provide a reward at the end of the week.

What steps should I take to ensure my child’s oral health?

All parents want the best for their child especially when it comes to their health! There are simple steps you can take to set your child on the path to a lifetime of great oral health.

Five tips to a great baby smile

  1. Make sure to avoid frequent or prolonged suckling, other than for nutritional purposes.
  2. Never let your child go to bed with anything in the bottle other than water.
  3. Choose to put fruit juices and drinks, flavored milk and beverages other than water in a cup rather than a bottle.
  4. Start an oral hygiene regimen as soon as teeth appear – establish a routine of twice-daily brushing early!
  5. Take your child to the dentist around their first birthday. 

And don’t forget that we are here to help! If you ever have any questions about your child’s oral health never hesitate to give us a call at Lockhart Dentistry at (317) 449-8050.

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