Help Your Child Move Beyond Thumb Sucking

Help Your Child Move Beyond Thumb Sucking

Some moms have ultrasound pictures that show their baby sucking a thumb while still in the womb. Most babies suck their thumbs from time to time throughout infancy. And that’s not always a bad thing. Thumb sucking is a form of self-soothing that can help a child cope with stressful situations and feel secure and happy.

Dr. Frank Radis, Pediatric Dentistry of Aurora, points out that thumb sucking not only provides security, “It’s part of how infants and toddlers explore their world. Most will stop between the ages of 2 and 4 without intervention.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents should be concerned about thumb sucking only when the behavior continues beyond the child’s fifth birthday. At that age, permanent teeth will soon erupt and a sucking habit can affect the roof of the mouth, the alignment of the teeth, and the child’s speech. The more aggressive or vigorous the thumb sucking, the more problems with the child’s permanent bite.

A parent’s first step should be talking to the child. The effort to stop is more likely to succeed when a child is motivated to make the change and has input into the plan. Make sure your child understands why it is important to quit. Then evaluate the child’s patterns to look for root causes and identify situations that might trigger the behavior. Is thumb sucking associated with car rides, bedtime, or television watching? The more you understand about your child’s particular situation, the better you can find new routines and alternative coping mechanisms. A stuffed animal to cuddle helps some children; keeping hands busy with balls or spinners helps others. A special outing or game can help distract a child by focusing on new experiences.

Radis says the most important advice he gives parents is to stay positive. “I’ve seen encouragement and a reward system work wonders,” he says.

Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center reminds parents to take the child’s efforts to quit seriously because it is a hard habit to break. Parents can provide emotional support as the child learns new ways to handle difficult situations. For instance, parents might “help him talk out his frustrations instead of sucking on his thumb to calm down.”

A chart to track progress and rewards for reaching milestones also are important tools. Praise the child’s successes but never scold, criticize or punish after setbacks. The resulting anxiety will make the child’s task more difficult. And be prepared for some lapses — thumb sucking can be so automatic that a child turns to it without being aware. Such physical methods of disrupting the thumb-to-mouth reflex are fine as long as the child understands it is a reminder and not a punishment.

If your family needs more help, your child’s dentist or pediatrician can be part of the plan for moving beyond thumb sucking. These professionals can help ensure the child understands the importance of quitting, and can provide parents with guidance when additional assistance is needed.

“Don’t sweat it,” Radis says. “More often than not, it resolves on its own. And when it doesn’t, we’re here to help.”

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