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My Child Sucks His Thumb – What Should I Do?

Does this mean we’re going to need braces?

 

Grace was a very difficult newborn.  For the first six weeks of her life she screamed all night, every night.  We were so sleep deprived and desperate, we would have tried anything.  Eventually, she started to sleep and we achieved a routine and some normalcy in the house.  Shortly thereafter, we started her in daycare and she had a difficult time adjusting.  Her daycare provider mentioned to me that she tried to get her to suck her thumb to self soothe.  I freaked out.  I was in my orthodontic residency and determined to prevent her from being a thumb sucker.  They assured me it was completely normal and had benefits, but I stood my ground.  I eventually allowed a pacifier, knowing that her thumb was permanently attached and someday I could throw away the pacifier.

I have a lot of moms ask me about thumb sucking.  As illustrated in the above story, I understand the importance of sleep and the ability of your children to self soothe.  I’ve always recommended pulling the thumb out every time your baby tries and substituting the pacifier.  I am a realist and know that some kids are not going to accept that as an alternative.  What do you do if they started sucking their thumb in utero and haven’t stopped since?  In most situations, parents shouldn’t worry too much.  If you can’t get your child to stop sucking his/her thumb at a young age, it’s probably OK.  You need to start actively trying to stop the habit at around 5-6 years old.

If the habit continues, there will be dental and skeletal side effects.  The upper incisors will flare forward and the lower incisors will tip back.  Usually children rest their thumb on their palate and begin sucking.  This pressure narrows the upper jaw and pushes the roof of the mouth upwards.  These changes will need to be addressed by the orthodontist with expanders, tongue cribs, braces etc.   Here are some examples of what prolonged thumb sucking can do to your child’s teeth:

7 year old thumb sucker with permanent incisors erupted

 

8 year old thumb sucker with permanent incisors erupted

 

So what should you do?

Ages 3-4:  Relax.  Talk to your child about it and mention that they will need to stop at some point.  Talk about how big kids don’t suck their thumb and try to limit the thumb to nighttime.

Ages 5-6:  This is when you need to become a little more active.  Check your child’s teeth or have your dentist let you know if there are any problems.  You want to stop the habit before the upper incisors erupt.  Continue the conversation with your child.  Read books together about thumb sucking.  Placing post-it notes with reminders all over the house and car help.  The bad tasting nail polish sometimes works.  Nighttime is where you are going to have the hardest time.  If your child agrees, socks over his/her hands can work.  I am never above bribery (you know what motivates your child).

Ages 7-8:  At this point, you need to bring your child to the orthodontist.  If your child is unwilling or unable to stop at this point, there are many things your orthodontist can do to help you.  The invasiveness of the procedure will depend on the severity of the problem.  Don’t delay seeing the orthodontist – his/her solution may be easier and less expensive than you think!

What worked for you with your child?

One Response to “My Child Sucks His Thumb – What Should I Do?”

  1. Libby says:

    This a very informative article about the effects of thumb sucking. Another tip for covering the thumbs would be to use Band-Aids to change the thumb’s texture, and kids might actually like to wear colorful or designed ones- they wouldn’t even know they’re being dissuaded!

    Thanks for posting!

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