Feb 22, 2016

Dr. Gellner: Everyone knows a child who has had a thumb-sucking habit. When is it okay or not okay, and how can you get your older child to stop this? I'm Dr. Cindy Gellner and I've got the answers for you on today's Scope.

Announcer: Keep your kids healthy and happy. You are now entering The Healthy Kids Zone with Dr. Cindy Gellner on The Scope.

Dr. Gellner: Thumb-sucking is a common way for children to comfort themselves, and if they're going to do it, it usually begins before three months of age. Sometimes babies even suck their thumbs before they're born, and it's really cute to see that on an ultrasound.

A baby's desire to suck is essential for life. Without the sucking reflex, babies don't eat. Any parent of a crying baby will also tell you that if a baby has a strong desire to suck, and they will take a pacifier, it can make a world of difference to a stressed out new mom or dad. The sucking need is strongest in the first six months of a child's life. Only 6% of thumb-sucking babies continue to have it past one year of age, and only 3% continue beyond the age of two. Some studies find that 15% of four-year-olds still suck their thumb.

A child usually sucks his thumb or any other finger when they're tired, bored, sick or upset. Those children who continue sucking their thumbs after the age of four often have become involved in a power struggle in their early years with a parent who has tried to stop their thumb-sucking. Occasionally, the thumb-sucking simply persists as a bad habit. By adolescence most normal children abandon thumb-sucking because of peer pressure. Dentists say that a child can probably suck their thumb until they're four or five years old without damaging their teeth or jaw line. However, thumb-sucking must be stopped before a child's permanent teeth come in because it can lead to an overbite. That's those buckteeth we see.

So how can you help your child stop sucking their thumb? If your child is less than five years old, distract your child or ignore the thumb-sucking. Help your child overcome any stressful situations. If the thumb-sucking is due to boredom, give them something to do with their hands without mentioning the thumb-sucking. Until your child is older, any pressure you put on them to stop thumb-sucking will only lead to resistance and your getting frustrated.

Most five-year-olds have reached the age of reasoning, and are ready to cooperate with their parents and work on this bad habit. Show them what the thumb-sucking is doing to their teeth and to their thumbs. The teeth are coming in wrong or there are blisters or rashes on the thumb. Talk about the gross germs and the dirt that they're sucking off their thumbs. Most kids will be freaked out enough that they will want to stop. Set a date to start stopping this behavior. Be ready with activities that will keep their little hands busy so they forget to put their thumbs in their mouths.

Make sure there's a visual remind for the child, like a band aid with a favorite character on it. Limit TV watching as many kids thumb-suck during screen time. Gentle reminders with older kids if you catch them with their thumbs in their mouths also help. Bedtime thumb-sucking will be the hardest to break. Most children depend heavily on the sucking activity to relax and fall asleep at nap time and bedtime. Your child can be told that thumb-sucking while asleep is not their fault, because that old thumb just sneaks in and they don't even know it.

Make incentives fun, like a reward chart for which they get a mark when they did not suck their thumb for the entire day. Give your child a lot of praise when they earn a mark. Thumb-sucking lasting beyond age five can usually be prevented if you avoid pulling your child's thumb out of their mouth at any age. Scolding, slapping the hand or other punishment will only make your child dig in their heels about thumb-sucking.

If you can wait, your child will usually give up the thumb-sucking naturally. If you turn the issue into a showdown you will lose, since the thumb belongs to your child, not you. Remember, you as parents cannot eliminate the habit for your child. The habit belongs to your child, and your child must be willing to cooperate and accept responsibility if the habit is to be eliminated.

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