Does your baby or child suck their thumb?
Some children suck their thumbs while others do not. Why? What are the consequences of thumb sucking, healthwise? How can you help your child stop sucking their thumb?
Some infants begin sucking their thumb while in their mother’s womb. Many babies are born with calluses from sucking their finger, thumb, or wrist. Other babies discover finger or thumb sucking after birth. This non-nutritive sucking is done for comfort. The sucking instinct in newborns is for survival. Sucking brings food and this food brings comfort.
Seventy-five percent of all babies in industrialized countries suck their thumb at some point. Babies that are born in countries where they have constant access to their mother’s breast have a very little incidence of thumb sucking. The infant’s sucking urge is completely satisfied and they do not need to suck their thumbs.
Most children stop sucking their thumb or fingers on their own without parental intervention somewhere around age one. But, some children continue sucking their thumb long after. Hereafter we will refer to finger, hand or thumb sucking as just thumb sucking to simplify the article.
Estimates from studies done in the 1970s indicate that at least 10 percent of children older than the age of five still suck their thumbs. No one knows exactly how many suck their thumbs because many do it in secret for fear of being ridiculed and embarrassed. Another study of children that were school age and in speech therapy classes found that as many as 50 percent of them had a thumb-sucking habit. Research also indicates that 75 percent of prolonged thumb suckers are girls.
The reason why many children continue to suck their thumbs long after toddlerhood has to do with the psychological needs of the child. Our brain has the ability to produce endorphins or mood-altering chemicals, in response to smells, sounds, actions, or objects. The brain controls our emotions and feelings in response to these chemicals.
Pleasurable activities such as thumbsucking, gambling, running, eating stimulate the brain to release these endorphins that stimulate a sense of well-being and pleasure. Thumbsucking triggers a calming, relaxing sensation to occur in the child. An infant’s first experience with pleasure which creates a calm feeling is sucking and getting food.
As most infants develop independence they become more mobile and too busy to bother with thumb sucking and therefore quit. When a child continues to suck their thumb many parents start to use punishment, negativity, yelling and frustration to try to stop them.
This only makes the habit more entrenched. Many times older children who suck their thumb have to endure pushy comments made by other children, teachers, and complete strangers about this habit that brings them so much pleasure. They begin to feel ashamed and that they are a bad person because of all the ridicule and insults they receive.
A child who sucks her thumb will have dental and speech problems. The top jaw begins to form a gap in the front where the thumb is always placed causing an open bite. Other problems include a crossbite, crooked teeth, malocclusions, lisps, or tongue thrust.
Prevention of prolonged sucking into childhood is probably the best defense that parents can take. First of all, a parent must meet their infant and toddler’s emotional needs. Give your baby and toddler a structured day. Respond to their crying to soothe them. They are either tired, hungry, cold, bored, or wet. Find out what it is and meet their needs. Give your child a feeling that they are safe with you at home or in daycare they will feel safe at.
If your child is still sucking their thumb after age five intervention is necessary. The timing of this intervention is important. Do not try any intervention when they are starting on a new endeavor in their life. This means a new school, home, sibling, parent etc.
The first step is to validate your child’s feelings when you begin to talk to them about their thumb-sucking habit.
Make sure you tell them that you know it is hard for them but you are confident they can be successful at quitting.
When your child is first trying to stop sucking their thumb keep their life on an even keel. Maintain a predictable routine in your home. Make sure the child is well fed and rested. Have them stay home from school and make it a three day weekend to work on the habit. Eliminate the blankie, or whatever they have that is associated with the thumb sucking.
The first few days are the most difficult and emotional. The child may experience withdrawal symptoms. The child may be unable to fall asleep by themselves and may become irritable. You can talk with your child and eliminate only the daytime sucking if need be at first. Once this is mastered then work on the night time-sucking. Create a progress chart of their small accomplishments; when they went one hour without sucking, then the day, then two days, and on up.
Give rewards for accomplishments. Keep your child busy and distracted during these first few days or if they are relapsing. Let your child munch on food or chew gum to keep their mouth busy. Remember this hard time is temporary.
Rarely does another bad habit replace the thumb sucking habit: your child can be successful with your support, love and encouragement.