Taming Thumb-Sucking in an Older Child


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Photo courtesy of Maria Maarbes/Shutterstock

It's not uncommon to see a toddler walking around with her thumb in her mouth. However, once a child reaches school age, she is expected to have stopped sucking her thumb. When this isn't the case, social consequences and dental problems become concerns. For the child who continues to suck her thumb, the habit has become a crutch. At this point, it will take patience, understanding and a joint effort by both the child and her parents to eliminate the prolonged habit.

Why do children suck their thumbs?

Thumb-sucking in infants is quite common and very natural. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), "Children suck on things because sucking is one of baby's natural reflexes. It may make them feel secure and happy and helps them learn about their world to suck on their thumbs, fingers, pacifiers or other objects."

For an older child, however, thumb-sucking is not a simple reflex. The older child might still suck her thumb to relieve boredom or tension. She also might suck her thumb because she is insecure. In some cases, an older child might only suck her thumb to soothe herself to sleep or when she is not feeling well.

When does thumb-sucking become a problem?

The American Dental Association reports that children usually stop between age 2 and 4. When thumb-sucking continues into the school years, it may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth. The ADA specifies: "When permanent teeth start to come in, thumb-sucking could prevent proper spacing and tooth alignment. In severe cases, it can even change the formation of the roof of the mouth."

Although most school-age children who suck their thumbs do so in private (they become aware that thumb-sucking is not an accepted practice), there is a small percentage of children who continue sucking during the day. In addition to causing physical problems for children, thumb-sucking can also impact a child's social acceptance and development if other children take note of it and tease your child in at school and other social settings.

How do I help an older child stop?

If she sucks her thumb because she feels insecure, focus on eliminating the cause of the anxiety. If she tends to suck her thumb because of boredom, offer an alternative activity to distract her. If the habit only occurs during sleep (when she is unaware), you might want to consider a "thumb guard" (an adjustable plastic cap that is secured to the thumb and not easily removed). Ask your pediatric dentist if there is a particular guard that he recommends.

In their book, Good Behavior, Stephen Garber, Ph.D., Marianne Garber, Ph.D., and Robyn Spizman suggest that parents chart their child's behavior and offer rewards for success.

Most importantly, the older child must be part of the process. She needs to be ready and willing to quit. In other words, the older child must take ownership of the plan.

Most experts agree on the following additional tips to help an older child break the habit:

* Don't use harsh words or teasing; this will reinforce the habit.

* Praise her for not sucking her thumb.

* Involve her in choosing the method to stop.

* Don't get frustrated, which tends to make the habit worse.

* Ask your dentist (or pediatrician) to explain to your child the effects of thumb-sucking.

* Find age-appropriate literature on the subject. (See book list below.)

When to see a specialist

Most children will stop sucking their thumbs when they are ready. If, however, after many attempts at trying to kick the habit, your child continues to suck her thumb, you may need to seek outside help. Your child's pediatric dentist or pediatrician might suggest an appliance that will help facilitate the quitting process.

Barton D. Schmitt, M.D., author of Your Child's Health, offers the following general guidelines to know when to seek advice from a health care provider:

* Your child is over 4 and sucks her thumb constantly.

* Your child is over 5 and doesn't stop when peers tease her.

* Your child's teacher has expressed concern about thumb-sucking in class.

* Your child also has emotional problems.

* Your child's permanent teeth are affected.

You can also talk to your child's pediatrician about recommending a therapist if you think your child's thumb-sucking is related to an emotional or psychological problem.

Myrna Beth Haskell is a freelance writer and mother of two. Her work has appeared in both national and regional publications.

Suggested Books

"David Decides About Thumbsucking" by Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

"My Thumb and I" by Carol A. Mayer, Barbara E. Brown and Ashley C. Brown

"Helping the Thumbsucking Child" by Rosemary Van Norman

"It Worked for Me! From Thumb Sucking to Schoolyard Fights" by Parents Magazine

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