Thumb Sucking and Finger Sucking - A Guide for Parents

A baby sucking her thumb
Sucking is a baby's first instinct and it is healthy and normal for babies to suck their thumbs and fingers, as it is linked to their need for food and exploration. The desire varies greatly from one baby to another and while one baby may have little interest in their thumb, another may have it permanently positioned in their mouth.
Thumb sucking tends to decrease when a baby starts eating solid food, at around 6 months and the need to suck generally lessens or stops around 12 months. Thumb sucking or the use of a dummy by a baby is usually little cause for concern for dental development up to this age. Up to 90% of infants suck their thumb and fingers without any adverse effects, and most will stop between the ages of 2 and 4 years.
However, after the age of 2 years, thumb sucking can be a problem and around 30% of preschool children will continue. By this stage, a child will most likely continue to suck their thumbs out of habit but some may also continue because of boredom, fatigue, stress or worry.
The habit is best broken before the permanent teeth appear in the mouth. However if the habit persists after the permanent teeth start to appear, the thumb or fingers may force the teeth and jaw out of alignment. This problem may then need correction.

When does thumb sucking create problems?

Long-term thumb sucking can have a significant impact on a child's teeth and speech. The intensity and regularity of a child's thumb sucking will also determine the extent of the damage done.
The two most common results of prolonged thumb or finger sucking are:
  • Malocclusion - Teeth may be pushed forward or out of position, such as an overbite, as the shape of the child's jaw will be altered from a U to a V shape
  • A lisp - Once teeth are pushed out of place, it becomes more difficult for the child to pronounce certain sounds
Malocclusion due to thumb-sucking habit

Other potential problems include:
  • reshaping of the jaw bone
  • thumbs can become swollen, and sometimes infected
In addition, some children may have difficulties with the growth of their palate, or the roof of the mouth. This in turn leads to problems with:
  • chewing and swallowing
  • placement of the tongue in speech
There may also be a stigma for older children who suck their thumbs. Their peers may tease and humiliate them for being a "baby". This can impose on a child's social development, especially in the early days of school.

Helping children stop thumb and finger sucking

There are various things you can do to help your child stop thumb sucking. Focusing on the positives and rewarding your child are important. Depending on your child’s age and ability, you might like to try the following suggestions:
  • Reward your child and offer encouragement – for example, with a hug or praise to reinforce their decision to stop the habit
  • Limit nagging – if children feel they are being nagged they will become defensive
  • Mark their progress on a calendar – for example, place a star or a tick for each period (such as a day or week) that the child does not suck their thumb or finger. Provide a special outing or a toy if the child gets through the period successfully
  • Encourage bonding – for example, with a special toy
  • Reminders – give your child a mitten to wear as a reminder not to suck, or place unpleasant tasting nail paint (available from chemists) on the fingers or thumb. Placing a bandaid over the thumb at bedtime is another reminder
  • Offer distractions – while your child is watching TV, have toys available for children to play with. Sit with the child during this time and give a cuddle to help them not to suck. In the car, have toys available to keep them occupied
It may take several attempts.
Children can easily drift back to their old habit and it may take several attempts before the habit is completely broken. Don't be disheartened. Be patient and know that the first few days without sucking are usually the worst.
If your child is struggling to give up the thumb sucking habit then your dentist can help.
The mechanical approach to stopping thumb sucking consists of devices, which are designed to prevent or interrupt thumb sucking. Examples include a sock over the hand or an ace bandage wrapped around the child's elbow. The latter would prevent the child from bending his/her arm and reaching their mouth. But it also restricts movement in a very negative way by making the sleeping process very uncomfortable at night, also limiting the child's ability to play during the day.
The latest and most successful version of the mechanical approach is Thumbs Out – a safe and efficient Australian-made device. Thumbs Out is made out of soft, opaque, non-toxic durable plastic material which is non-DEHP, non-phthalate plasticiser and it is BPA free. This means they are safe for little people.
Thumbs Out device
It does not restrict the child's ability to play and it doesn't cause any major discomfort. It interrupts the process of sucking by breaking the vacuum created by sucking, thus removing the child's pleasure without creating any negative feelings, which can be interpreted by a child as a punishment. Treatment with Thumbs Out usually lasts four weeks and has a very high success rate.
If a child sucks his/her fingers, we can help with FingerGuard - a device designed similarly to Thumbs Out.
Thumbs Out device

How does Thumbs Out work?

The theory behind the Thumbs Out products is two-fold. The first is that thumb sucking is a habit, and a habit can be broken if stopped for a period of time. The second is that the product itself hinders the enjoyment given by the sucking.
Thumbs Out device
Thumbs Out thumb guards work by eliminating the vacuum that is created when your child tries to suck their thumbs. This vacuum, or suction, is what causes that enjoyable soothing feeling. Unfortunately, that suction is also what is responsible for crossbite, malocclusion, and a host of other damaging conditions which develop when the habit is prolonged.
Thumbs Out is secured on the child's hand by multicoloured wristbands, which are fun for children to wear and allow them to choose a new colour every day. These wristbands or bracelets are lockable on a child's wrist, so that the child would not be able to remove the Thumbs Out device without the guardian knowing. The treatment kit includes 2 Thumbs Out appliances, 60 colourful and lockable bracelets, and written instructions.
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