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Thumb Sucking

Alternate Names

  • finger sucking

Definition

Sucking on the thumb or other fingers is a normal activity in children. Infants and young children often suck their thumb or fingers to console themselves.

What is the information for this topic?

Children suck on their thumbs or fingers for different reasons and at different times. Thumb sucking may occur when children are ill, upset, about to fall asleep, or being quiet.
Thumb sucking is also a way for children to cope with bedtime and other stressful events.
Infants who suck their hand or thumb during the first 3 months of life seem to cry less than infants who do not.
In addition, allowing infants to suck during a painful procedure seems to reduce the signs of pain.
Thumb and finger sucking usually appear in the first several months of life. Thumb sucking peaks when children are 2 1/2 to 3 years old. At least 50% of children in the US suck their thumb or fingers during infancy. Almost 30% of American children suck their thumbs at the time of their third birthday. Most children have quit on their own by the time they are 4 or 5 years old.
The main concern over thumb sucking is dental problems. Children who stop sucking their thumbs by age 5 usually will not have dental problems. However, the facial structures and the teeth develop rapidly between the ages of 4 and 14. Children who suck their thumbs or fingers after age 5 can cause problems in these structures.
These problems may include:
  • poor alignment of the teeth
  • abnormal swallowing with tongue thrusting
  • distortion of facial features
  • speech disorders, especially when pronouncing the letters "d" and "t," and a lisp
Thumb sucking should be seen as a normal part of infancy and young childhood. Caregivers should not put bitter substances on the thumb or pin the hands in a sleeve or mitten, unless the child wants help in stopping the thumb sucking.
Scolding or punishing a child for thumb sucking is usually not helpful and may only cause a struggle with the child over who controls his or her body.
Because scolding may even serve to reinforce and prolong the habit, most experts recommend that parents ignore a child's thumb sucking.
Parents of children who suck their thumbs regularly beyond age 3 should ask the dentist at a regular checup, if treatment is needed.
Treatment usually includes the use of appliances that are put in the mouth. These appliances help correct the poor alignment of the teeth and break the sucking habit. Sometimes the dentist can stop the habit just by talking to the child about the problems with thumb sucking.

Sources

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry website ([hyperLink url="http://aapd.org/" linkTitle="aapd.org"]aapd.org[/hyperLink]) has information about the treatment of thumb sucking and other topics relating to pediatric dentistry.

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