Sucking Habits

Along with favorite blankets, teddy bears, and nap time, thumb-sucking can be one of the most comforting aspects of childhood. According to a recent report, between 75% and 95% of infants suck their thumbs, so chances are there's a thumb-sucker (or a former thumb-sucker) in your family. Is this cause for worry?

In most cases, no. However, it's important to pay attention to your child's habits, in case his behavior has the potential to affect his oral health.

What Is Normal Thumb (or Pacifier)-Sucking Behavior?

Most children suck a thumb (or finger or pacifier) from a very young age; most even start inside the womb. Sucking is a natural reflex for infants and it serves an important purpose. Sucking provides a sense of security and contentment for a young child. It also can be very relaxing, which is why many children suck their thumbs as they fall asleep.

According to the American Dental Association, most children stop non-nutritive sucking habits on their own between the ages of two and four. They simply grow out of a habit that is no longer useful to them.

However, some children continue to suck their thumb, finger, or a pacifier beyond the preschool years. If this is happening with your child, especially when his permanent teeth start to erupt, it may be time to take action to break the habit.

What Signs Should I Watch For?

First, take note of how your child sucks his thumb. If he sucks passively, with his thumb gently resting inside his mouth, he is less likely to cause damage. If, on the other hand, he is an aggressive thumb-sucker who places pressure on his mouth or teeth, the habit may cause problems with tooth alignment and proper mouth growth. Extended sucking affects both the teeth and the shape of the face and may lead to a need for orthodontic treatment in the future.

If at any time you suspect your child's thumb- or pacifier-sucking is affecting his oral health, Dr. Pacella will provide information at your child's next dental visit regarding the consequences of this habit. We will assess the current situation and suggest possible treatment options to prevent further dental or skeletal problems from developing.

How Can I Help My Child Quit Thumb (or Pacifier)-Sucking?

Helping your child quit sucking his thumb or giving up a pacifier can be very challenging. Use the tips below to help your child through this growing stage:

  1. Always be supportive and positive. Use positive reinforcement. Don't punish your child for setbacks. Instead, focus only on rewarding your child for the times he goes without sucking his thumb or pacifier.
  2. Children often suck when they feel insecure, so focus on finding and correcting the things that make them feel anxious. If you notice your child sucking when he's anxious, work on alleviating his anxiety rather than focusing on the thumb or pacifier-sucking.
  3. Start a progress chart and let your child put a sticker up every day that he doesn't suck his thumb or pacifier. If he makes it through a week without sucking his thumb or a pacifier, he gets to choose a prize (trip to the zoo, new set of blocks, etc.) When he has filled up a whole month, reward your child with something he really loves. The best news is, by then, the habit should be over. Making your child an active participant in his treatment will increase his willingness to break the habit.
  4. Put a band-aid on your child's thumb or a sock over his hand at night. Let him know that this is not a punishment, just a way to help him remember to avoid sucking his thumb.
  5. Take note of the times your child tends to suck (long car rides, while watching movies) and create diversions during these times.
  6. Explain clearly what might happen to his teeth if he keeps sucking his thumb.
  7. If you try all of the above and still can't get your child to stop sucking his thumb, there is an oral appliance that can help. Talk to Dr. Pacella about it at your child's next appointment if you think this is necessary for your child.

During your child's next visit, Dr. Pacella will encourage your child and explain to him why sucking his thumb or pacifier is not good for his dental health. Dr. Pacella will also tell your child that after he stops sucking for two weeks, he will receive a prize in the mail especially for him, from Mars Dental Specialists as a reward!

Whatever your method, always remember that your child needs your support and understanding during the process of breaking the thumb or pacifier-sucking habit.

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