Got Thumb?

Tasty, but a tough habit to break.

Have you figured out what your 2-year-old’s favorite pastime is? For my son, it was sucking his thumb, even while playing with his Thomas train set. He became attached to his thumb at 3 months of age, though I was told he probably started in utero. “Thumb-sucking is an almost universal act of childhood,” notes pediatrician Lelon Edwards with Pediatrics East. “Although we use pacifiers frequently in today’s modern culture, before pacifiers most children would suck their thumbs at some point or another. Sucking is a comforting act for infants.”


Should I intervene?

The goal should be to help your child break the habit before his permanent teeth erupt. According to American Academy of Pediatrics, the only time thumb-sucking may cause concern is if it goes on beyond ages 6 to 8 or affects the shape of the child’s mouth and the position of the teeth. “The age of the patient, the time per day, and the severity of sucking are the factors that determine whether or not dental problems may develop,” explains orthodontist Danny Weiss, “If a child probably does when he or she is sleeping, it is not a big deal. If they start to develop the habit 24 hours, it can be a problem.”


How to break the habit

The good news is most kids quit on their own by the time they reach kindergarten. However, approximately 15 percent of children continue into elementary school. “There needs to be motivation for the child to discontinue something that has been comforting to them in the past,” suggests Edwards. “Positive reinforcement is good, but it is hard to reason with a 2-year-old. If the child is 4 or 5 years old, it may be easier.” Remember one thing about thumb-sucking: it is more successful when your child wants to stop. If he doesn’t find other ways to self-soothe, he’ll likely take off the glove you put on him to cover up the thumb. In those cases, Weiss says the best option would be installing a thumb-sucking appliance. It is cemented to the upper molars with a small gratelike design which gives no room for the thumb to be sucked. This appliance can be combined with prongs that will prick the finger if the patient persists. If a tongue thrust has developed from the thumb-sucking, the grate gives the patient a place to rest the tongue when swallowing, which will allow the upper and lower teeth to gradually close over the course of one to two years.


Keep teeth healthy

The American Association of Orthodontists recommends all children get an orthodontic check-up by age 7. If you see problems developing with your child’s teeth, then it’s advisable to see a pediatric orthodontist sooner. Edwards concludes saying that thumb-sucking may need to be stopped if your child is having dental problems or if they have recurrent colds and infections from touching germy objects before putting the thumb in their mouth.

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