Sucking of the thumb is a common sight among young children. During pregnancy, even babies in a mother's womb suck their thumb.
However, thumb sucking is a children's habit that produces a strong reaction in parents. What can parents do?
What causes thumb sucking?
Thumb sucking is a very natural reflex that all children have. Some children get great comfort from it, some find it relaxing while others soothe themselves to sleep with it.
Due to this, children may put their thumb in their mouth because:
- It has become a reflex, an unconscious habit
- They are stressed, frustrated or anxious
- They are trying to sleep
- They are lonely
What should parents do?
For children under 4:
- Most children will stop sucking their thumbs, on their own, by the age of 4. No permanent damage will be done.
- Patiently explain to the child the downsides of sucking their thumb - germs, misshapen teeth etc.,
- Remind them to take the thumb out. You may have to do this repeatedly. Be patient.
- Praise them when they take their thumbs out.
- See if the habit gets triggered after any particular experience. For example, an argument with a sibling may trigger the habit. Step in immediately and help the child relax.
- Do not shout at or discipline the child.
For children over 4:
- Sucking the thumb beyond the age of 4, especially when permanent teeth start to appear in a year or so, can cause permanent damage. This includes misshapen front teeth and misalignment of teeth.
- At this age, work very closely with children and make them concentrate on taking the thumb out. Continue repeated reminders.
- Use incentives to stop the habit.
- Enlist the support of the child's teachers and family members to watch the child and remind them to take their thumb out.
- Prolonged sucking can also causes calluses on the thumb and infections.
- If the child continues sucking when they go to school, they may be subject to teasing and bullying.
- If the habit is not stopped, even young adults and grownups continue sucking their thumbs. Due to social embarrassment that may result if others witness them in the process, these people may resort to doing this on the sly and live in constant fear of discovery. As a result their stress and anxiety levels increase.
- If parents cannot stop the habit even as children grow older, professional help through therapy should be considered.
Will a bitter substance work?
Parents can consider putting a bitter substance on the child's thumb so that the child's tastes the bitterness as soon as their thumb touches their tongues. This is effective if used for a child who sucks their thumb as a habit, and is more effective when the child is awake.
Do not try this on a child who uses his thumb to soothe themselves to sleep. Putting the bitter substance near bedtime can disrupt the process of going to sleep and frustrate and stress the child.
Will a reminder work?
A reminder like a small plaster on the thumb or a sock over their hand at night may also help. With the socks and plaster, please take care not to put them on tight lest you constrict blood supply to the child's hand.
Parents need to work continuously in a positive way to convince a child to take her thumb out of her mouth. This is a long drawn out process but if done persistently it will help the child drop the habit before it causes permanent damage to their dental and mental health.