How to Avoid Thumb Sucking?

how to avoid baby keeping fingers in mouth?

How to stop child from putting fingers in mouth?

Overview

Thumb sucking is a behavior found in humans, chimpanzees, captive ring-tailed lemurs, and other primates. It usually involves placing the thumb into the mouth and rhythmically repeating sucking contact for a prolonged duration. It can also be accomplished with any organ within reach (such as other fingers and toes) and is considered to be soothing and therapeutic for the person. As a child develops the habit, it will usually develop a “favorite” finger to suck on.

In 1977 researchers studied fifty habitual thumbsucking children between ages one and seven. Researchers compared habitual thumb suckers to children who did not suck their thumb. Studies showed that thumb suckers tended to be bottle-fed rather than breastfed. The child who was weaned later was less likely to suck his thumb.

The thumbsucking children tended to have been fed on a schedule rather than on cue. And 96 percent of the thumb suckers had been left to fall asleep alone after being fed. But not one of the non-thumb suckers was left alone to fall asleep. Researchers theorize that during sleep person’s return to primitive reflexes, such as sucking and hand-to-mouth actions.

In our pediatric practice, we have noticed that babies who are nursed to sleep and not weaned until they are ready are less likely to become habitual thumb suckers. Consider breastfeeding as a sort of prevention for habitual thumbsucking.

Many infants and young children calm themselves by sucking their thumbs. While most children will stop on their own between ages 3 and 6, some continue past the age of 4 or 5. Prolonged thumb-sucking can lead to serious dental and speech problems. By using lots of love, encouragement, and a few simple steps, you can help your child succeed in breaking the thumb-sucking habit.

If your thumb or finger-sucking child is 3 years old or over, it’s time to break the habit. Many articles on this subject focus on talking to your child and offering positive reinforcement. But most toddlers are not interested in giving up a constant source of pleasure.

If you wait too long to stop the thumb and finger sucking, your child can have permanent changes to their jaw shape, bite, and teeth. Speech can also be affected, and many thumb suckers will need speech therapy. Thumb and finger sucking are normal in the newborn period and an important way for infants to be able to soothe themselves. However, once your child is 3 years old, it’s time to break the habit. 

By age 3-4 years, many thumb and finger-sucking children have a gap between their upper and lower teeth, and their jaw development has changed, often causing problems with speech. Their tongue muscles also don’t develop correctly, making speech sounds like “s” and “the” difficult. If you wait until after your child’s permanent teeth come in to stop the sucking, they can develop “buck teeth” and an appearance that is not cosmetically pleasing.

My 4 ½ -year-old has finally quit. After more than a year of failed efforts, frustration, sleepless nights, and crying, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. As a pediatrician, I was frustrated that there is little evidence-based research on effective techniques to stop thumb sucking and finger sucking. Most online articles focused on gentle strategies to quit sucking, like positive reinforcement, keeping little fingers busy with play and art, and helping your child understand why sucking is a bad habit.

We started this way. But after a year and a half, my daughter was still sucking, and not very interested in stopping. This was a deeply rooted habit — she was sucking her thumb on every ultrasound I had before she was born. By the time she finally quit, she needed speech therapy and dental work. I only wish we had gone to stricter techniques sooner. Every child is different. There is no one right way to stop the habit. The biggest mistake you can make as a parent, though, is to wait too long to help your child break the habit.

Why do kids suck their thumb?

Clearly, there may be something instinctual in a baby’s desire to prefer one thumb over the other but why do babies suck their thumbs at all?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, all babies are born with an intense need to suck. And that’s a good thing because sucking is how babies eat from the breast or a bottle.

Babies also find the sucking sensation soothing and many continue to do it outside of feeding sessions. While some babies and toddlers prefer using pacifiers to satisfy their sucking needs, other babies find their thumbs or fingers to be the best and most available! tool for self-soothing.

Can the dentist help?

If you’re concerned about the effect of thumb sucking on your child’s teeth, check with the dentist. For some kids, a chat with the dentist about why it’s important to stop thumb sucking is more effective than a talk with mom or dad.

Rarely, some doctors recommend using unpleasant techniques, such as covering your child’s thumbnail with a bitter substance, bandaging the thumb, or covering the hand with a sock at night.

Can Thumb Sucking Cause Any Problems?

Causes of adult thumb sucking

During infancy, thumb sucking isn’t a problem. In fact, it gives you as a parent enough breathing room to pursue other activities. There are some misconceptions such as the belief that thumb sucking can cause speech disabilities. This is nothing but an unsubstantiated claim without any facts to prove it.

Thumb sucking is a natural, instinctive behavior that provides comfort. Doctors call it a non-nutritive sucking habit. This is a group of soothing behaviors that also include the use of pacifiers or comfort blankets.

Babies and children begin sucking their thumbs as a reflex, making them feel secure and safe. The behavior may extend into adulthood for similar reasons. Adults may suck their thumbs as a response to stress or anxiety.

Thumb sucking could also be a response to trauma. Psychological trauma is a mental and physical response to events a person finds extremely stressful. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), common examples include bullying, abuse, or a car accident.

According to Freudian psychoanalysis, a person who encounters challenging events may revert to an earlier stage of development as a way of coping. Psychologists call this age regression. Age regression involves a person adopting the behaviors of someone younger than themselves.

According to the Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders, this could include behaviors such as:

  • cuddling stuffed animals
  • engaging in baby talk
  • sucking objects or body parts, such as the thumb

If a person’s thumb sucking is the result of trauma, they will also experience other signs of trauma, such as:

  • feeling alert, on edge, or unable to sleep
  • intense guilt, shame, anger, or panic
  • flashbacks to the traumatic event

However, thumb sucking starts becoming a problem later as the child’s milk teeth begin to fall off. One of the thumb sucking effects includes its potential to interrupt the correct alignment of the teeth. It can also lead to an oral fixation later in life where they may replace the thumb with cigarettes, alcohol, or binge eating.

Negative Consequences of Thumb Sucking.

1) Pressure from a thumb/finger can cause constriction of the muscles of the mouth (including cheeks) which can limit the growth of the jaws, preventing them from growing to their proper size. This may lead to poor tooth relationships (crossbites) or jaw size discrepancies. It affects growth and some of these effects can be permanent if not addressed at a proper age.

2) A finger or thumb in the mouth will generally sit in the roof of the mouth, which is where the tongue should be. This can change the shape of the entire palate from a U to a V shape (which can look very poor aesthetically but also have other negative effects for growth and development).

3) When the tongue cannot sit where it normally should (in the upper palate or roof of the mouth) it will naturally want to go somewhere else, oftentimes lower in the mouth closer to the bottom teeth. This can lead to improper tongue posture and may affect a child’s sleep quality and breathing quality.

4) Thumb sucking can permanently alter the eruption location of permanent teeth, leading to something called an open bite. This causes the teeth to stick out (giving a bucktooth appearance) with excess overbite and overjet, as well as increases the risk of trauma to the front teeth.

When Is Thumb Sucking Normal?

As infants learn the basic function of their mouth, from sucking on a bottle to learning to speak, it’s a very natural habit to start sucking on their thumbs or other fingers (and oftentimes can include lip/cheek sucking, or sucking on a piece of clothing). As long as the fingers are kept clean and the habit is kept in check, it’s a normal habit that often ends after a few short years. The main problems start when infants start growing and continue the habit.

Age Recommendations:

Age 2-3: Thumb sucking is generally considered normal at this age but the most important thing to consider is how much time is spent with the habit (i.e. is it only at night to fall asleep or is it all day, what is the frequency, how long has the habit been taking place). Dr. Peter generally recommends trying to stop the habit by age 3 at the latest.

Age 3-6: This is a very important age for trying to eliminate a habit before the permanent teeth have erupted. In general, most children will start getting their permanent incisors (front teeth) around age 6 and if the thumb or finger habit has resolved by then, there is a greater chance of being able to correct an open bite and other negative consequences.

This doesn’t mean you should wait until a child has turned 6, though, as there can be changes to the palate and teeth before age 6. The longer a child continues a habit, the harder it can be to break that habit.

Age 6+: The longer you wait after age six, the greater the chance that there will be negative consequences. Although an orthodontist may be able to correct some of the consequences of the habit, it is much more difficult as a child gets older and may result in more costly treatment or extended treatment times.

In summary, thumb sucking can be considered normal until age 2-3. After that age, there may be negative consequences in the bite, tooth alignment, jaw, and orofacial function. Visit a pediatric dentist to address any concerns as well as diagnose any issues that may be occurring!

How Can I Get My Child to Stop Thumb Sucking?

This can be a source of frustration for many parents trying to stop their children from sucking their thumbs. “Do you want to stop sucking your thumb? “NO!” is a pretty common answer for the persistent. There is no one solution that will be effective in getting a child to stop sucking their thumb if they don’t want to stop.

Some children take longer to age psycho-socially and understand the negative consequences that may be associated with thumb sucking so one of the most important things a parent can do is constantly reminding/letting the child know that this isn’t a healthy habit.

1) Get a reward or positive reinforcement calendar. Every day the child does not suck their thumb or finger, they get a start. At the end of the week or month, they choose a reward (whether it’s the dessert for dinner or a movie to watch). Make it fun and you’d be surprised how motivated some children can be to stop.

2) Mavala Stop: This is a bitter flavored nail polish that you can pain on the fingernails. This is one of the easiest options to try, though, I’ve found limited success with very stubborn habits. This is a gentle reminder to not place their fingers in their mouth.

3) T-Guard or Aeroguard: I’ve found the greatest success with these appliances. They are placed directly onto the finger and can help break a habit. I definitely recommend wearing these for at least 3-4 weeks for a stubborn habit but they are designed to be ventilated, comfortable, and difficult to remove for children. 

The guards do not prevent the thumb or finger from going in the mouth, but they do prevent suction from forming, so there’s no longer any pleasure left in the habit. Without the pleasure, children have no incentive to continue.

4) Elbow Straightener: This is a device that is placed on a child’s elbow to prevent them from fully straightening their arm (and thus preventing their fingers from going in their mouth). This can be an effective solution for children at night who are sucking a thumb or finger subconsciously.

If all else fails, visit a pediatric dentist. Dr. Peter Markov is expertly trained to help diagnose and address any habits that may be negatively impacting your child’s growth and development. There are a variety of treatment options including expanders, bluegrass appliances, or habit crib/rakes that can help the habit stop.

What Are The Side Effects Of Thumb Sucking?

The side effects of thumb sucking are:

  • Jaw deformities as the child enter adulthood
  • Damage to the teeth alignment
  • Teeth may be pushed around, resulting in an overbite or underbite
  • Formation of a lisp due to problems with the alignment of the jawbone
  • Alteration of the roof of the mouth (palate)
  • Bone deformities in the finger (3)
  • Spreading of infectious germs

Thumb sucking is a natural occurrence, and there is nothing much of concern if you notice your little one doing it a tad bit too often. However, to make sure that this habit doesn’t follow the toddler into the preschool and school years, you can use any or a combination of the above tips.

Do you know of any other tricks that have helped your child stop thumb sucking? Share your experiences and thoughts with us in the comments section below.

Effective Ways to Stop Thumb Sucking In Infants

List of approaches that can be used to kick the habit:

Blisters

Excessive thumb sucking can cause blisters on the thumb. Blisters are fluid-filled lumps that form under the skin. They usually occur when the skin is damaged.

It may be necessary to prevent thumb sucking while the blister heals. A band-aid can protect it from further damage. Avoid bursting the blister to reduce the risk of infection.

Don’t Be Harsh: 

One of the biggest mistakes that parents make is getting upset about thumb sucking. As the behavior is prompted due to anxiety, adding negativity is only going to increase the stress level for the infant.

Finding Their Own Path: 

Most infants eventually grow out of the habit without any intervention being needed.

Distractions: 

Find out when your baby starts sucking on his thumb. These should help you identify the triggers for thumb sucking, such as watching television or being left alone in a room. You could distract your child using words or actions when you are in the room. In case you need to go out of your baby’s field of vision, get a toy that you know would keep him engaged.

Talk to Them: 

Use baby-talk to help him understand that thumb sucking isn’t good for them. Though it may seem like a futile exercise, research has shown that infants are able to understand words better than previously thought.

Hyperkeratosis

Keratin is a tough protein that hardens the skin. In hyperkeratosis, the skin forms additional layers of keratin, making it tough and hard. This can happen in response to the skin being repeatedly irritated.

Thumb sucking can irritate and put pressure on the skin, which can lead to calluses or corns. Hyperkeratosis can also lead to chronic skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis.

YouTube Videos: 

Technology has helped parents access information easily. You could try the same on your infant by showing him videos of the dangers of thumb sucking. As a precaution, you could screen the videos that you feel are appropriate and build a playlist around it.

Praise: 

A study conducted on infants showed that they are well-aware of the concept of praise. Be sure to make your baby feel good about not sucking their thumb every day. However, avoid any kind of negative criticism as it could make them anxious.

Alternatives: 

Due to some of the dangers associated with thumb sucking, you could try alternatives such as a blanket or cuddly teddy bear.

Pacifiers: 

One can use pacifiers to wean their infants away from thumb sucking. Choose specific times during the day when they can use the pacifier and gradually reduce the timing till they don’t require it anymore.

Mittens: 

You can try to physically cover the hands with the help of some soft gloves, mittens, or a thumb guard.

Bitter Medicine: 

Apply some bitter ointment (that is safe to consume) on your child’s thumb to wean him away from the habit. Avoid making it a punishment by showing constant affection.

Tooth misalignment (Dental problems)

Most children stop sucking on thumbs, pacifiers or other objects on their own between 2 and 4 years of age. No harm is done to their teeth or jaws until permanent teeth start to erupt. The only time it might cause concern is if it goes on beyond 6 to 8 years of age. At this time, it may affect the shape of the oral cavity or dentition

Over time, thumb sucking can also lead to someone’s teeth moving out of alignment, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Some people can also develop an overbite.

Dental problems are more common in those who suck their thumb more intensely. Having the thumb passively in the mouth is less likely to lead to tooth misalignment.

Why Do Older Children And Adults Suck Their Thumbs?

Older children and adults seem to suck their thumbs to find comfort and security just like infants do. A journal of pediatrics, Minerva Pediatrica, performed a neurological study of people from 5 to 25 years old who were still in the habit of sucking their thumbs and found that thumb sucking stimulates certain receptors that release physical and psychological tension. But that release of tension can come at a cost to your oral health.

How do you stop sucking your thumb?

How to stop adult thumb sucking

The methods that help a person stop sucking their thumb will depend on the cause. If they notice that they suck their thumb in times of stress or worry, addressing this may help.

A person could try:

  • replacing thumb sucking with a different stress-relieving activity, such as exercise or meditation
  • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help someone change specific beliefs that may contribute to their anxiety
  • other types of therapy, such as psychotherapy

The ADA suggests a variety of ways that a parent or caregiver can encourage a child to stop sucking its thumb. An adult can also try similar tactics, such as bandaging the thumb. This makes it difficult to suck, which can help reduce the behavior.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicate that techniques that help people break other habits may also help someone who wants to stop thumb sucking, such as:

  • setting small goals, such as not sucking the thumb for one day, and then slowly building up
  • giving oneself rewards for each small milestone
  • mentally rehearse not sucking the thumb in situations that normally trigger the behavior
  • asking trusted friends, family, or coworkers for support

Sucking your thumb is an unhealthy habit, just like eating too much junk food, watching too much TV, or even being addicted to a substance. The Mayo Clinic has some great advice on changing unhealthy habits that can be useful here:

Best Ways to Stop Thumb Sucking In Babies

Try and Limit the Time

Start by limiting your child’s thumb-sucking habit to the bedroom or before a nap. Try and explain to them that sucking the thumb is not to be done in public.

Warn About Germs

Warn your child about the germs on his/her hands and how sucking the thumb can cause infectious germs to spread and trigger diseases. The fear of ingesting harmful germs may make some children give up the habit of thumb sucking.

Try Out Some Chewelry

Switching to chewelry, which is basically chewable jewelry, can help your toddler quit thumb sucking. You may find many options for this online.

Observe When They Tend To Do It

Children tend to suck their thumbs either during a nap or while watching television. Observe your child’s favorite thumb sucking time. If it is while watching television, go ahead and switch it off for a few minutes. You can also put a piece of chewelry in your mouth during bedtime to help your child stop thumb sucking.

Suggest a Competing Habit

With a child over four, you can use the principle of a competing habit. Show your child how to fold his arms, squeeze his thumb, or some other gesture that he enjoys instead of sucking his thumb. A trick that I’ve used successfully in my office is the game of hiding the thumb: “As soon as you feel like sucking your thumb, wrap your fingers over your thumb into a fist.” If it’s a bedtime habit, suggest hiding the thumb under the pillow.

Praise or Reward

Praise or reward your toddler every time he/she does not have the thumb in the mouth. Give a sticker for every hour your child goes without sucking his/her thumb. This may make them put more effort into quitting the habit.

Avoid Using Finger Gloves/Covers

Don’t put on a pair of gloves/covers on your toddler’s hands to make him/her quit the habit. This will only increase your child’s anxiety. And when they are old enough, they may just remove the gloves and suck their thumbs again. Instead, help them out of it slowly.

Keep Thumbs Busy

Bored little thumbs often seek their friend, the mouth, when there is nothing better to do. Busy the bored child. When you see the thumb heading toward the mouth, distract and redirect the child into an activity that keeps both hands busy.

Divert Their Attention

Try to divert your baby’s attention every time you see him/her sucking the thumb. Give them a stress ball if you think they are sucking their thumb when they are nervous. If the toddler has been sucking his/her thumb when bored, make the child draw, paint, or play with toys instead.

Be Patient (Keep life Calm)

Remember, thumb sucking is a common habit in most kids. A majority of children give up sucking their thumb on their own with time. So, be a little patient and wait for them to stop it on their own.

As your toddler gets older he will use his thumb to help himself relax. This is good. You then do what you can to keep peaceful yourself, and that will flow over into a peaceful atmosphere in the home. Model relaxing ways and your child will learn from you; such as quiet times, long walks, music, and slow, deep breathing when you feel anxious.

If someone is concerned about their thumb-sucking habit, they may wish to talk to a doctor or therapist for advice. A dentist may also be able to help with any impact thumb sucking has on the teeth.

Thumb Sucking Vs Pacifiers

Below are the pros and cons associated with the two approaches used by parents to control baby finger sucking?

Thumb Sucking:

  • Easy Access
  • Teeth problems later in life
  • Emotional independence
  • Quicker sleep compared to pacifiers

Pacifiers:

  • Reduction in breastfeeding
  • May cause ear infections as it opens the auditory tubes
  • Control over the sucking by parents
  • Sucking in sleep reduces risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

While parents being worried about their kids is understandable, you must realize that thumb sucking is natural to most infants. Though there are some inherent dangers to it, a gradual approach of weaning your kids over time is enough for them to kick the habit.

Summary

Many babies and young children suck their thumbs, but most stop by the age of 4. However, some people will continue to suck their thumb into adulthood. Vigorous thumb sucking can cause blisters, calluses, and dental problems.

Sucking their thumb may help an adult feel calm and reassured after experiencing stress or anxiety. Some people may suck their thumb in response to trauma. Addressing the reasons behind the thumb sucking might help someone to stop.

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