Is There a Thumb Sucker in Your Home?
I was a thumb sucker as a child (up until at least the age of twelve) and unfortunately the habit did a lot of damage to my teeth and my jaw so that I had to undergo extensive and expensive orthodontic work and even jaw surgery as an adult.
When my own children came along, I made sure they did not take up the habit by providing pacifiers instead. The eldest was not interested (preferring a blanket to fidget with instead), the second born kept up with his pacifier until he was four (giving it up when he was ready) and the youngest threw her pacifier away at the age of two (after I popped it into some disinfectant and she did not like the taste!).
Now my youngest grandchild aged five has the thumb sucking habit – and my son has asked me to research remedies on how to prevent this continuing…
What is thumb sucking?
Thumb sucking is not limited to our children, it is also found in chimpanzees, captive ring-tailed lemurs, and other primates. It generally involves placing the thumb into the mouth and rhythmically repeating sucking contact for a prolonged duration, providing comfort.
It is usually considered to be soothing and therapeutic for the person. As a child develops the habit, it will usually favor a particular finger or thumb to suck on.
Why we need to persuade our children not to suck their thumbs?
There are hundreds of different words of advice online on how to to achieve this and of course some things work for one child and others for another child.
One point that is often emphasized is that if your child has reached three years old, and is still sucking his or her thumb, it is time to break that habit. Wait too long and your child can suffer permanent changes and damage to their jaw shape, their bite and their teeth. When their adult teeth arrive, they can develop projecting teeth.
In addition, their speech can be affected as, by this age, many thumb sucking children have a gap between their upper and lower teeth while their jaw development has changed which often causes speech problems. At the same time, their tongue muscles don’t develop correctly so that speech sounds like “s” and “th” can be problematic.
Sharing top ten tips on how to stop
Chatting about the problem, explaining why thumb sucking is a bad habit. While this is not going to do the trick completely, it can help your child decide that he or she wants to quit. Talk about: how germs get spread when you suck your thumb; how sucking pushes teeth forward so that you might need braces; how other children might tease you about still being a baby; and how it can make it harder to learn to speak the right way.
Is there anxiety? Does your child have anxiety that has not been addressed? If the decision is made to try to stop thumb sucking, use praise and positive reinforcement all day even if any success with stopping thumb sucking is due to a device. It is important to get the parents and any teachers or childcare providers on the same page about the plan. Thumb sucking is apparently the first deeply rooted bad habit that some children may have to break. They can’t do it without the loving and persistent support of adults.
YouTube. There are several short YouTube videos available about thumb sucking and you might well find that these really work in persuading your child to stop or reinforcing your reasons why they should.
Identifying the most likely times your child will suck his or her thumb. You can then get your child to help you devise a plan for giving up, focusing on those times. One plan is to choose an item of “chewelry“ which can help to stop the sucking without losing the pleasure derived from oral stimulation.
Bad-tasting nail polish. Usually used to stop nail biters but it works for thumb suckers too. There are definitely two schools of thought on this method with some parents considering it cruel. I found the experience from one mother online who had successfully used this method – with a different angle.
She said: During her deepest sleep, I applied the nail polish and, in the morning, my daughter called me to tell me her thumb tasted gross. My strategy was to show sympathy but to try to convince her the time had come when the good stuff on her baby thumb had been worn off by her sucking, leaving only the gross taste in spite of repeated washing; that it just happened naturally. I demonstrated to her what I meant by taking a small juice box and sucking out all of the juice until I literally sucked the air out if it and caved the box in. In the meantime, I had put a drop of the polish on my own thumb. I asked her if she wanted to taste my own grownup thumb? She said “Yes”. When she had tasted my own thumb, she agreed that perhaps she had lost her baby thumb and we made a big deal of it, celebrating with friends and family that she was a big girl now. And it worked!
If you think this might work for you and your child, remember to have two or three different brands because children can get used to the horrible taste – and keep applying every night when your child is asleep.
Plastic thumb or finger covers: These are not not cheap, and are available from Dr. Thumb, Dr. Finger and T-Guard, but are highly rated and most children are unable to remove them. If you keep them on for about two weeks, your child will have kicked the habit. There is one drawback and that is they inhibit hand use, making it hard for children to play or feed themselves.
Ace bandage to the elbow: The ace wrap keeps hands unobstructed and is less annoying than gloves or hand covers. They can be worn under clothing. It does take a few tries to learn how to wrap the elbow just right. It can help to affix a safety pin to the ace bandage to make it harder to remove.
NIPITs Thumb Stopper. The design prevents the fingers from comfortably entering the mouth. When wearing NIPIT the range of motion is reduced to about 100 degrees. By using the elbow instead of covering fingers, your child can do all normal daily activities. It is said to be a safe device, inspected by pediatric specialists, dentists, orthodontists, orthopedic surgeons and oral surgeons.
Boxing Gloves! One parent has written about giving their son small boxing gloves and how it did the trick. He couldn’t just pull them off. The best part was that he thought the gloves were cool.
Finally, family psychologist Jenn Berman says: “DO remember that a child will grow out of the need for thumb sucking or finger sucking when he’s good and ready. While parents may not like it, it’s best left alone, Children will eventually give it up.” But I would add that perhaps not before permanent damage has been caused as in my own experience. And incidentally, I only gave up my own thumb sucking because I started at boarding school and changed to biting my nails instead – a habit which took another twenty or more years to overcome…
There is some good news
Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D writing in Psychology Today says that major complications of thumb sucking usually correct spontaneously if thumb sucking ceases by age six. Thumb sucking in a child less than two years of age requires no treatment. In a three to four year-old child, thumb sucking may be secondary to changes in the child’s emotional environment, and treatment should be directed at correcting the underlying problem.
He adds that thumb sucking that persists beyond the age of six years should be treated.