stop thumb sucking

Thumb sucking is an oral sensation developed by a child. It is a spontaneous or reflex action.  In fact thumb sucking starts even from 15 weeks of conception. Although common, it is imperative to stop thumb sucking once the child is of age 5 or older. Here are some ways to help children give up the habit.

Why do children suck thumb?

The reason is not established. It may be a voluntary action or due to the irregular movements of the fetus which may by chance put the thumb into the mouth.

This reflex action is responsible for the new born to develop the habit of sucking the mother’s breast for its feed. The child habitually sucks any object placed before its mouth till such time it is able to identify the object. This habitual sucking helps the child to suck milk from a feeding bottle as if it were her mother’s breast.

Why does a child suck only its thumb?

The answer is that the thumb becomes the favorite object for the child.  Some children rarely suck other fingers too. Over a few weeks since birth, thumb sucking turns out to be an oral pleasure for the child and it continues the habit even up to five or six months generally. The child may feel secure by this habit and so he or she continues the habit whenever it needs a soothing effect or when going to sleep.

Some children continue the habit even after attaining adulthood. It may be due to a psychological disorder or just  inadvertent continuation of the habit.

How to stop thumb sucking?

There is no rule of thumb to stop thumb sucking. Each child may have a different reason for pursuing sucking. The level of perception and understanding are also different. Hence particular attention in each case is needed to wean away thumb sucking.

Consequence of sucking thumb

Till the age of five, thumb sucking may not lead to adverse consequences. But after that age, it is bound to create problems for the teeth and oral cavity. It may not only lead to physical damages or malformations but also lead to infections or increased probability of contacting communicable diseases. At a later stage, it may become a psychological and social problem for the child and may lead to isolation from a group of children.

Pediatricians world over consider thumb sucking as a normal and usual behavior in infants. They opine that it gives comfort and entertainment to the child and that it need not be considered harmful. Thumb sucking does not harm till a child’s permanent teeth begin to erupt. There is no harm in just placing the thumb in the mouth but it becomes detrimental when sucking becomes aggressive.

When the child continues with thumb sucking even after the reasonable time, it becomes a worrying factor for the parents both due to health and psychological factors. Normally the habit goes away once the child starts to attend preschool. Only when it continues even after preschool level, parents should try to stop it in view of the health issues thumb sucking may lead to.

Home remedies to help a child stop thumb sucking

The concerned parent tries to wean away the habit by adopting various methods. Such methods may be by clinical or consultative depending upon the response from the child.

There are various remedies to prevent a child from continuing the habit. Some of them are discussed here.

  • If the habit continues beyond about four or five years of age, it has to be stopped by the joint effort of the child and parent. The part played by the parent in making the child leave the habit is the dominant factor.
  • Breast-fed children normally do not continue thumb sucking. Likewise, children who co-sleep are less vulnerable. This is because, loneliness at bed time triggers the need for thumb sucking. In fact, habitual thumb sucking can be stopped by occasional empty breast sucking which gives the required pleasure to the child.
  • Before trying to wean away the habit, the parent should keep a watch on the changes happening in the child’s mouth or teeth. As long as there are no changes there is no cause for immediate worry.

Gradual weaning

  • The child must be encouraged to stop the habit. Encouragement can be by way of appreciating the child whenever it intermittently stops sucking. Praising the child for not sucking will give some pride in it.
  • The child may be told to adopt the practice only during bed time and during other times or in the day. This will restrict the time duration of sucking which will be a first step towards stopping it altogether.
  • Whatever method is used it must be a positive approach. Negative tactics like nagging or scolding in front of others should not be adopted. Thumb guards or thumb puppets may be used to make the child to put the thumb to some other use but with experiencing the pleasure of the puppet movements.

Positive tactics

  • Positive tactics like rewarding the child with chart based star ratings by sticking colorful stars on the calendar works well.
  • Even pretending to ignore thumb sucking by the child may help. Since the habit is involuntary, reminding the child every time it starts sucking also make the child stop the habit.

Force will not work

  • Forcibly taking the thumb from the child’s mouth do not help as the child will repeat sucking as it does not realize that it is sucking its own thumb leave alone realizing that it is detrimental to health. Pressure tactics may often lead to opposite effect and the child may aggressively pursue the habit. It has to be carefully attended as a psychological issue.
  • Before going to a doctor attempts can be made to prevent the child from continuing the habit by various tricks and counselling.
  • We know that thumb sucking is an involuntary act of the child but the child derives pleasure and comfort in doing so. By diverting the child into other interesting activities which are liked by it we can reduce the temptation to suck the thumb.
  • Sucking may sometimes be only when the child is hungry or sleepy. In such cases, the child can be trained to ask for eating snack or drinking milk depending upon the time. When sleepiness is the cause, put the child to rest with bed time stories and other lively narrations.
  • Toys like balls or tiny puppets can be given to the child as an entertainment in order to forget thumb sucking. Keeping the thumb otherwise engaged will prevent sucking it. Preempting the desire for the habit is important. Bandaging the thumb or putting a sock around the thumb during bed time can prevent sucking.
  • When the child attempt to start thumb sucking, the parent should simultaneously start entering into a conversation with the child. This will make the child otherwise engage its mouth.
  • Talking and playing to divert from the habit can help only where the child is not aware of the habit formed.
  • Beyond the reasonable age the parent can softly tell the child that it is a bad habit and has to be stopped by it. Parent can make the child to observe children who have not formed the habit. By doing this the child may observe that it is practicing a peculiar habit. When in company of other children the child may gradually withdraw from the habit without others telling it.
  • By closely watching the child it can be observed as to the occasion when the child suck the thumb. The underlying reason may be some sort of stress experienced by it. In such cases the parent should try to find out the reason for the stress and provide necessary comfort to the child. In such circumstances the child may be given a pillow or a sponge or cotton stuffed animal to play with. By squeezing them the child gets relieved of the stress and avoids sucking.
  • If the child has come of age so as to understand that it has developed the unhealthy habit, the parent can softly advise the child and make it remove the thumb from the mouth.
  • The child must be handled in such a way to make it enjoy more pleasure in talking with parents or playing with toys than thumb sucking. Once it happens the unhealthy habit stops forthwith.

The role of peer pressure

  • The child normally leaves the habit just by peer pressure. That is the child observes the odd habit by looking at other school mates who are not sucking thumbs. Telling the child gently that a particular other child of its age do not have this habit will make the pride in the child to resist the temptation.
  • When the child starts understanding, it must be shown the ill effect of thumb sucking like projected teeth and open mouth. This will make the child realize the adverse effect of the bad habit when it is able to see in the mirror how its mouth or teeth look different from others. Any advice to the child must be timed appropriately in order to make the child to be receptive. Before advising, the child must be brought to relaxing mood.
  • A child may withdraw from a group of children and starts sucking its thumb. This is an indication that the child is experiencing stress. Here, it needs a social boost to indulge in mingling with children again.

How a dentist can help

When the normal parental efforts in stopping thumb sucking do not succeed consulting a dentist will help. The dentist may more effectively talk to the child and make it leave the habit. If that does not help, a dentist may prescribe mouth guards or any other dental appliance which prevents sucking. Some may even suggest unpleasant methods like capping the thumb with some bitter substance in order to forcibly prevent sucking.

Ramya Srinivasan, PDGBA, earned her Master’s degree in Business. As a result of her passion in native medicine, she got her Diploma in Traditional Siddha Medicine from Bharat Sevak Samaj registered under the Indian Planning Commission. She is certified by Stanford University School of Medicine in Introduction to Food and Health.