By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Infancy and childhood are stressful times for children. Many children turn to a tried-and-true method to find comfort – thumb sucking, or finger sucking.
When babies suck their thumbs it is a normal and harmless occurrence in terms of speech development and growth.
Babies have a natural reflex for rooting and sucking – babies even suck their thumbs in the womb.
Thumb sucking makes babies feel more secure --- it's a way to self-soothe --- and this can make it habit- forming as the baby grows.
But should your child still be thumbsucking your child is a toddler, or ready for preschool?
Children Who Don’t Stop Thumbsucking
Many children suck their thumb to soothe themselves in stressful situations, or when they go to sleep.
Usually, children will start to develop other coping skills in the two to four year old range which replace thumbsucking.
But for some kids, the habit or need to suck the thumb is harder to kick, resulting in possible growth and development problems.
Research shows that thumbsucking can have a negative impact on the mouth and jaw as early as two to four years old.
Does Thumbsucking Damage Teeth?
Experts used to believe that thumb sucking wasn’t a concern until the child’s permanent teeth developed, at which point the thumb could begin to affect how the teeth line up in the mouth, or the roof of the mouth.
But recent responses from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry say that thumb sucking can be a problem before that, when the child makes a habit that is difficult to break.
Thumbsucking puts pressure on the sides of the upper jaw and on the roof of the mouth. It can cause the upper jaw to narrow, and the teeth will not meet properly in the mouth.
A “thumb hole” in the roof of the mouth results in irregular chewing actions that affect the structure of the jaw.
And Can Thumbsucking Affect Speech?
The use of sucking behaviors, apart from breastfeeding, can be detrimental to a child’s future speech according to a 2009 study from the Corporacion de Rehabilitacion Club De Leones Cruz del Sur in Chile and the University of Washington Multidisciplinary International Research Training Program.
Thumbsucking for too long can raise the risk of subsequent speech disorders in young children. Researchers looked at sucking and speech disorders in 128 three- to five-year-old preschoolers in Patagonia, Chile.
Children who sucked their fingers or thumbs were three times more likely to develop speech impediments.
Your Child Can’t Stop? Don’t Worry, Thumbsucking May Also Have a Positive Effect
Extended thumbsucking may have a surprising upside.
A 2016 study from Dunedin School of Medicine and McMaster University in New Zealand shows that children who suck their thumbs or bite their nails are less likely to develop allergic sensitivities to things like house dust mites, cats, dogs, horses, grass, and airborne fungi.
The results come from the long-running Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study, which has tracked the lives of 1,037 people born in Dunedin, New Zealand between 1972 and 1973 into adulthood.
While thumb sucking may have this one positive upside, there are serious downsides to the habit aside from possible jaw damage.
Children may experience negative reactions from peers, or from parents and other adults. If your child is still sucking their thumb and you want them to stop, here are some ideas.
1. Positive Reinforcement Helps Kids Stop Thumbsucking
Positive reinforcement is often more helpful than negative reinforcement for breaking a habit.
A 2015 study from the University at Buffalo shows that positive reinforcement plays a key role in performance on cognitive tasks, particularly for children with ADHD, who researchers saw were more motivated than other children by the opportunity to gain rewards.
Reward children with extra trips to the park or to a favorite play center, stickers or small toys when they go a while day without thumbsucking, or they go without sucking their thumb for an hour.
Use lots of praise while your child remains thumb-free.
2. Help Kids to Practice Self Awareness to Stop Thumbsucking
Here's a great idea. Use a mirror to help your child stop thumbsucking. When you see your child thumbsucking, hold the mirror up to show them what they look like. This increases self-awareness of the act of thumbsucking.
Self-awareness can help your child stop thumbsucking. Research shows that children as young as two develop self-awareness, meaning that they understand they have an effect on their environment and that their environment affects them.
And it gets easier with age. In a 1979 study by Beaman AL, Klentz B, Diener E, and Svanum S older children rather than younger children were influenced by self-awareness when deciding whether to stick to a rule about taking only one piece of candy.
When your child is sucking his or her thumb, hold up the mirror and ask them whether they know that they are sucking their thumb?
If your child says no, the mirror will help him to recognize that he is doing it and to find him a different way to self-soothe.
3. Check with the Dentist for Help with Thumb Sucking
For some children, hearing about the negative effects of thumb sucking is more effective when coming from a dentist than from mom or dad.
In other cases, a dentist can recommend a mouth guard or another appliance that could help stop thumbsucking by interfering with the sucking action.
The American Dental Association in a 2001 report says children’s bite may be affected if thumbsucking persists after the age of two, so it can help to see a professional if your child still has the habit once he or she reaches this age.
4. Choose Cooperation to Help Stop Thumb Sucking
Experts say you are more likely to be successful at getting your child to stop sucking their thumb if your child wants to stop, and is involved in choosing the method involved.
Of course, this may be wishful thinking in many cases but many kids are open to cooperation.
2006 research from the University of Pittsburgh has demonstrated that children begin to engage in helping behaviors and in cooperating with adults to perform a goal around the age of two.
If your child is not ready to want to stop, she will eventually come to you and tell you she wants to give up the habit if you have already empowered her to make that decision for herself.
5. Foul-Tasting Paints and Mittens?
Many experts say to not use a glove, mitten, bandage or other device on the hand as this will just frustrate a child more, and cause them to want to suck their thumb more.
Similarly, foul-tasting nail paints may result in unnecessary trauma for a child, who will then still want to resort to thumbsucking to feel comfort.
6. Stop Thumbsucking by Paying No Attention
In many cases, children will simply stop sucking their thumb, probably a few months after you notice and begin to worry about it.
Many children suck their thumb to get attention so if you ignore the behavior, they drop it eventually.
But if ignoring is not working, try gently reminding him to stop.
You could use a special hand signal to let them know they need to stop, so as you don’t embarrass them in front of others.
7. Thumbsucking? Let It Go
Children won’t be at college sucking their thumb. A child will grow out of the need to such their thumb when they are ready.
You may not like it, but sometimes it is better left alone completely.
A 2015 study from University College London (UCL) in the UK says that happiness and life satisfaction are the result of having parents who are caring but not controlling. So you could be doing your children a favor when you just let it go.
The researchers looked at 5,362 people aged 13 to 64 and assessed their wellbeing from birth.