Thumbsucking is a normal behavior found in more than half of all tots during the first years of life. It provides security, relaxation and contact with the environment. In fact, babies begin sucking their fingers even before they are born.
Thumbsucking occurs in a variety of situations, including falling asleep or sleeping, boredom, hunger, contentment or stress. Many youngsters also twist their hair, hold a blanket, fondle a favorite toy or play with their face or ears while sucking their fingers.Pacifiers serve the same function as thumbsucking and have a similar effect on youngsters' mouths and teeth. Pacifiers have advantages in that they decrease the incidence of children's thumbsucking and they are easier to wean from as toddlers grow. Thumbs, on the other hand, are more convenient and readily available. They are never lost in the middle of the night or left at the baby sitter's house.
While many well-meaning parents worry that thumbsucking will damage their tot's mouths and teeth, pediatric dentists generally agree that it is a harmless - even beneficial - habit during Baby's first four years. Thumbsucking helps toddlers calm themselves and has little impact of dental development before the eruption of the permanent teeth. Even after the adult front teeth are in, most young thumbsuckers don't apply enough force against those teeth to pose a threat to them.
While the vast majority of children naturally stop thumbsucking around the ages 4 or 5, a few continue into kindergarten, grade school and beyond. Such boys and girls do run a greater risk of developing dental problems. They may even experience rejection from their peers. Studies indicate that first-grade students perceive thumbsucking classmates as less desirable choices for friends, classmates and neighbors.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to guide older children away from their thumbsucking habits. But don't try them too early. It's best to wait until youngsters are mature enough (usually after the 4th birthday) to understand what you are saying and willing to comply with the weaning process. Starting them before tots are ready only leads to frustration for both parents and kids but may actually increase a youngster's need to thumbsuck, further compounding the problem.
Enlist your child's help. Calmly explain your desire to limit thumbsucking behavior. Seek suggestions from your youngster about how best to do it. Approach the issue as partners, rather than as adversaries.
Select a time when your household is relatively stress-free. Don't attempt to put an end to thumbsucking during a move to a new house or following the birth of a sibling.
Be patient. Allow a minimum of three weeks to phase out the thumbsucking habit.
Use behavior-changing techniques. For example, put a marble in a jar for every hour the child refrains from thumbsucking. When the jar is full, celebrate by renting a favorite video or splurging at the yogurt shop.
Or you can paint the child's fingernails a fun, wacky color or adhere splashy Band-Aids to the fingers to serve as reminders. Your youngster's input is invaluable here. Have fun together and be creative.
Finally, be positive and relaxed. Your serene attitude and trust in the child's ability to outgrow this habit are your strongest allies.