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How long does thumb
sucking usually last?
Many children stop sucking their thumbs
on their own sometime during the toddler
years — between ages 2 and 4. For older
kids who continue to suck their thumbs,
peer pressure at school usually ends the
habit.
Remember, though, even a child who’s
stopped sucking his or her thumb might
revert to the behavior when he or she is
stressed or anxious.
When should I intervene?
Thumb sucking isn’t usually a concern
until a child’s permanent teeth come in. At
this point, thumb sucking might begin to
affect the roof of the mouth (palate) or how
the teeth line up - especially if the thumb
sucking is aggressive.
Consider stepping in if:
• Your child sucks his or her thumb
frequently or aggressively after age 4 or 5
• The thumb sucking is causing dental
problems, such as the upper front teeth
tipping toward the lip
• Your child is embarrassed about the
thumb sucking
What can I do to
encourage my child to
stop thumb sucking?
Consider these techniques:
• Don’t mention it. In some cases, paying
no attention to thumb sucking is enough
to stop the behavior - especially if your
child uses thumb sucking as a way to get
attention.
• Use positive reinforcement. Praise your
child or provide small rewards - such
as an extra bedtime story or a trip to
the park - when he or she isn’t thumb
sucking. Place stickers on a calendar
to record the days when your child
successfully avoids thumb sucking.
• Identify triggers. If your child sucks
his or her thumb in response to stress,
identify the real issue and provide
comfort in other ways - such as a hug or
reassuring words. You might also give
your child a pillow or stuffed animal to
squeeze.
• Offer gentle reminders. If your child
sucks his or her thumb without thought
- rather than as a way to get your
attention - gently remind him or her to
stop. Don’t scold, criticize or ridicule
your child. To spare embarrassment in
front of others, you might alert your
child to the thumb sucking with a
special hand signal or other private cue.
Can the dentist help?
If you’re concerned about the effect of thumb
sucking on your child’s teeth, check with the
dentist.
For some kids, a chat with the dentist about why it’s
important to stop thumb sucking is more effective
than a talk with mom or dad.
In other cases, the dentist might recommend a
special mouth guard or other dental appliance that
interferes with sucking.
Should I try negative
reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is generally more effective
than negative reinforcement. Resist the temptation
to use aversive techniques, such as covering your
child’s thumbnail with vinegar or another bitter
substance.
What if nothing works?
For some children, thumb sucking is an incredibly
difficult habit to break. Remember, though, peer
pressure typically leads kids to stop daytime
sucking habits on their own when they start school.
In the meantime, try not to worry. Putting too
much pressure on your child to stop thumb sucking
might only delay the process.
Why do some children
suck their thumbs?
Babies have natural rooting and sucking
reflexes, which can cause them to
put their thumbs or fingers into their
mouths - sometimes even before birth.
Because thumb sucking is soothing to
babies, some might eventually develop
a habit of thumb sucking when they’re
bored, tired or anxious.
Many children who suck their thumbs
or fingers do so while holding a
treasured object, such as a security
blanket.
H
Oct/Nov 2013
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