Stress. Have you ever imagined a world where instead of snacking on candy, or grabbing a drink after work, everyone would just suck their thumbs to alleviate stress? Imagine it for a second: you're sitting on the train headed home from work, and instead of reaching for your phone to serve as a distraction, you plop your thumb in your mouth - and so does the person next to you, and the person next to them. Crazy! Well, this is what life is like when you're a toddler … the thumbsuckers are everywhere! If you're now able to imagine your child as a participant in the above scenario because you think they've been at it for too many years already, have no fear, we can help.
Why Children Suck Their Thumbs
First off, it's important to understand that thumbsucking is a perfectly natural habit children develop as an extension of their rooting reflex. As humans, we're pre-programmed to want to stick things in our mouths to feed ourselves, and if you're a toddler without a breast nearby, or a flying spoon from mom or dad, a thumb works beautifully to sate that need. Thumbsucking also helps calm a child when the anxiety of being a toddler in a world of giants becomes a bit much.
That said, extended thumbsucking can be a dental concern, as doing so aggressively, or past an age when primary teeth begin to appear, can produce an offset bite and tooth protrusion. In some cases aggressive thumbsucking can even affect a child's palate because of the constant upward pressure. In most cases, though, your child will completely outgrow the habit by the age of four, and experience no visible signs of ever having been a thumbsucker.
Helping A Child Transition Away from Thumbsucking
If you're not inclined to wait for the habit to work itself out over time, or if your child is nearing kindergarten age, here are a few tips that can help your child transition away from the habit.
- Don't mention it: Sometimes, the most effective method for curbing the habit is to simply refrain from acknowledging there is a concern. Set a timeframe (a month is often recommended) for not commenting on your child's habit to see if this alone eliminates it from your child's repertoire.
- Reward good behavior: Instead of calling attention to the habit when it is occurring, reward your child when the habit doesn't occur. To make it fun, create a visual chart where your child can win stickers or prizes that are placed on a calendar or poster board for greater effect.
- Engage and Empower: Let your child become a part of the process and an instrument in their own success. Working together with you to develop achievable goals and appropriate rewards will allow them to self-monitor the habit effectively.
- Ask your dentist for help: Your dentist can serve as a great intermediary in this effort by explaining to your child the effects of long-term thumbsucking. Often times, there can be a power struggle between a parent and child that only an outsider can break.
- Avoid negative criticism: Scolding a child, or using techniques such as placing vinegar on their finger nail, can cause a child to experience even more stress, eventually causing them to hide the habit from you as a result. This isn't the solution you're seeking.
It's understandable that as a parent you may be concerned about thumbsucking. Rest assured, though, in most cases your child will grow out of the habit in due time. If your child does experience a nagging habit beyond the age of four, try some of the methods above. If you're still struggling, mention it to your dentist or pediatrician for more specific advice that will help you silence the habit once and for all.