Thumb Sucking: The Ins & Outs

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Did you know that humans are not the only ones in nature found to suck the thumb? This act of inserting the thumb or fingers into the mouth and repeatedly sucking it in a rhythmic motion is also seen in chimpanzees and other primates. Fascinating, isn’t it? Now that we have established the fact that this is a natural reflex, we need to know how long thumb shucking should last during childhood, any effects on the oral health and steps to discourage it if it is prolonged.

As a concerned parent reading this article today, you may be wondering why your child sucks the thumb. Most children suck their thumb as a measure to soothe themselves when stressed or anxious and also help them to sleep. Yes, children get stressed too! This is absolutely normal but there are growing concerns when it comes to the age and intensity of this habit. In terms of age, thumb sucking is normal and most kids stop this habit between the ages of two (2) years and four (4) years old. There is a likelihood for a relapse in the habit when contributing factors such as anxiety and stress come in again. However, if the behaviour goes beyond five (5) years, it becomes a problem. Issues such as changes in the roof of the mouth, misalignment of teeth and jaw and speech problems are seen in individuals who have had a history of prolonged thumb sucking during childhood. In terms of the intensity of this habit, a child who vigorously sucks the thumb will more likely develop the aforementioned dental issues compared to a child who passively rests the thumb in the mouth. All these factors play a role in aiding the child to put an end to the habit when prolonged.

Notwithstanding the fact that thumb sucking is considered aberrant beyond the age of five (5) years, the onus lies on the parent to wean the child off of this habit sooner than later so that the pattern become less inveterate. Steps to discourage thumb sucking include avoiding situations that stress your child such as criticizing and shaming them for thumb sucking. This leads to more anxiety and stress and the child now starts to shy away from public settings and will most likely suck the thumb when they are not in your presence. You should also replace their coping mechanism for stress with a healthy activity such as holding their favorite toy, stuffed animal or blanket. This distracts them from the habit. You can also consider creating a behaviour chart with stickers where you reward the child each time he or she reaches a particular amount of stickers. This serves as a reinforcement. The caregiver can also discourage the habit by covering the hand with a sock at night or putting a bandage on their thumb. Additionally, if the child is old enough, you should be able to effectively communicate with him or her about the adverse effects of the habit on the oral health by showing them images from the internet. Regular dental visits are also essential in halting the habit. This is to allow the dentist thoroughly examine the child’s mouth for any dental problems associated with thumb sucking. The child may be required to wear a dental appliance fabricated to break the habit and also correct the teeth alignment depending on the severity.

In conclusion, every child is unique in their own way. One should bear in mind that not every method will effectively work on the child. Patience is required in every step of the way and very soon your child will adapt to these changes.

Thanks for reading.

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