5 Great Tips to Help Your Child Get Rid of Thumb Sucking

From causes to prevention tips, get all you need to know about this normal habit.

By Dr J Ida Fanny

5 Great Tips to Help Your Child Get Rid of Thumb Sucking

Oral habits are considered a part of the normal development of a child. Oral habits in children are completely normal forms of self-soothing and exploration of the environment. Oral habits until 3 years of age are considered normal. If oral habits are prevalent well beyond the acceptable age, they result in malocclusion and facial deformity.

We all have habits–things we do every day, often without consciously thinking. Some of them are good but not all of them. That’s why it’s important to prevent your child from developing harmful habits. Pacifier sucking, followed by thumb/finger sucking are the most common harmful habits in childhood. Childhood is the mirror that reflects the propensities of adulthood.

Factors like duration of the habit per day, degree and intensity of the habit are responsible for any habit to produce detrimental and lasting effects. There are various reasons for developing thumb-sucking habit. Significant relationship exists between duration and intensity of thumb sucking and the amount of time spent in feeding sessions.

Thumb and finger sucking in babies are believed to cause a number of changes in the dental arch and the supporting structures. Some of the effects of thumb sucking are:

  • Forward position of the upper and lower front teeth.
  • Increased horizontal gap between the upper and lower front teeth leading to increased over jet of teeth.
  • Increased vertical gap between the upper and lower front teeth leading to open bite.
  • Development of tongue thrusting habit, secondary to thumb sucking due to open bite.
  • Narrow dental arches.
  • Smaller upper lip.
  • Soft tissue lesion on the thumb/deformation of the thumb.
  • Short finger nail.
  • Increased risk of trauma to upper front teeth.
  • Effect on psychological health, speech defect (especially lisping), middle ear infection and enlarged tonsils.

Children usually start with this habit in the first year of their lives. Parents must attempt to distract the child’s attention by showing him other things such as toys and must move away the child’s thumb smoothly. After the second year of age, thumb sucking will decrease and will appear only when the child is in bed or when he is tired. Children who do not stop sucking the thumb, give up the habit when their permanent teeth erupt. However, in some cases, there is a tendency to continue the thumb-sucking habit well into adulthood. We take a look at some easy ways to get your baby off this habit.

Thumb-sucking can be prevented by the following steps:

  1. Direct interview with child if he is mature enough to understand
  2. Encouragement: This gives the child pride and self-confidence and prevents the habit.
  3. Reward system: So that the child is more involved in getting rid of the habit.
  4. Reminder therapy which includes chemical and mechanical approaches.
  5. Use of orthodontic appliance.

Initially awareness of the habit, the extent, consequences and benefit of cessation of the habit have to be explained to the child. Dental changes caused by thumb sucking need not be corrected if the habit stops before the child is 5 years old. Dental changes will get corrected automatically when the thumb sucking habit stops. The success of any habit interception procedure largely depends upon the child’s co-operation and willingness to be helped to discontinue his thumb-sucking habit. Thus, the parents and the dentist should seek to motivate the child, and not to frighten and scold the child. Use of chemical approach is an age-old method and it has shown to be less effective. Bitter tasting or foul smelling natural ingredients can be applied to the thumb to make the habit distasteful.

The use of mechanical aids are basically reminding appliances that assist the child who is willing to quit the habit but is not able to do so as the habit has entered the subconscious level. These appliances usually consist of a framework placed palatal to the upper front teeth. The frame is placed exactly where the child places the thumb. Its raised rigid design keeps the thumb from laying snugly against the palate. The appliance is either removable or fixed. Other aids that can be used to intercept the habit include bandaging the thumb, bandaging of the elbow, wearing long sleeve sleeping gown. Once the habit affects the permanent teeth, the damage is irreversible and requires orthodontic intervention.

Since oral habits are a form of de-stressing, parents should play the role of friend, emotional support and a guide to the child rather than shaming or nagging them.

The author is a Consultant Pedodontist at Apollo White Dental Spa, Chennai.