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Stopping Thumb Sucking

Helping your toddler kick this habit takes patience from parents – and positive reinforcement, too

It's no surprise that your baby has a habit of sticking things in her mouth. Not only does she experience the world by putting her fist, your fingers, and just about anything else she can get her hands on in her mouth. It's a natural precursor to teething. But what can parents do when kids get older – and won't give up the thumb sucking?

Reasons

Your baby's sucking reflex is actually innate, providing nourishment – and comfort. According to the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott's Children's Hospital, "more than 80 percent of babies do some extra sucking when they are not hungry." As children get older, they may find it soothing to suck on their thumbs. In fact, it's not unusual to find children well into their preschool years still thumb sucking.

Most children will gradually let go of their thumb-sucking ways. But for some, the habit can persist. The American Dental Association (ADA) cautions that once a child starts growing permanent teeth (around 6 to 7 years of age), thumb sucking may lead to dental problems such as over bites, or worse.

Says the ADA, thumb-sucking "may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth. It can also cause changes in the roof of the mouth."

Helpful tips

Before you get too worried about your child's thumb sucking, keep in mind:

  • Children usually stop on their own between the ages of 2 to 4.
  • Older children will have a difficult time stopping, unless they are willing to break the habit.
  • Your pediatrician or your child's dentist should be able to offer some guidance and assess if your child's habit is leading to permanent problems.

To help children kick the habit:

  • Let them express their desire to stop.
  • Give them positive reinforcement. Praise them when they go for a period of time without sucking.
  • Offer gentle reminders not to stick their thumbs in their mouths by placing something on the finger like a bright-colored band-aid.
  • Help them keep their fingers out of their mouths at night by placing a sock over the hand.
  • Consider applying bitter-tasting nail- and thumb-coating products available at drugstores.

Don't stress

"Thumb-sucking should be handled on a case by case basis," adds Ray Maturo, DDS, a pediatric dentist in Ann Arbor. He notes that many children need orthodontic help whether they're thumb-suckers or not.

In fact, Dr. Maturo's youngest child was a thumb-sucker off and on until the age of 8. "But she was the happiest kid in the world," he recalls. Her thumb-sucking relaxed her, but made her overbite worse. Dr. Maturo kept her habit in perspective: "I already knew she'd need braces, so I didn't believe I needed to fight her over her habit."

Let your child be the guide when it comes to knowing when to stop thumb-sucking, suggests Dr. Maturo. "Your child needs to be interested in stopping or else any method is going to be difficult. Bad tastes wash off and children will simply pull off a sock at night if they're not motivated to quit."

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