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Lucy Stock is a columnist for the Irish News

Thumb Sucking and Your Teeth

by Lucy Stock BDS DipImpDent RCS (Eng)

Published in the Irish News . 30.10.2013

If you are a parent concerned about your child sucking their thumb it may be useful to realise why they’re doing it. Sucking actually re-optimizes the heart beat and breathing patterns of upset babies, slowing them and regularizing the rhythms. Sucking even regulates the muscle movements in babies’ intestines. Slowing these movements enables the babies to digest their food more efficiently. In studies comparing children who do or do not suck a thumb, finger or dummy, it turns out that the suckers become emotionally more independent at a younger age.  

So the thumb sucking is a comfort and calming behaviour that may even have started in the womb. Children tend to turn to their thumb when they’re tired, scared, bored or sick. Most children stop thumb-sucking on their own between the ages of 2 and 4 as they start to develop other coping skills beyond thumb or finger sucking, such as language development. Peer pressure in school is often a very effective deterrent. However for some kids, thumb sucking or finger sucking is harder to kick, which can lead to problems for their growing mouths. Recent research shows that thumb or finger sucking can have an impact on teeth of children as young as 2 to 4 years old. The constant sucking pressures cause the upper and lower teeth to sit far apart in u –shapes. This often causes speech problems such as a lisp. When the child grows up they can find it more difficult to chew and extra strains are put on the back teeth because the front teeth don’t touch. 

Pressuring a child to stop may intensify the desire to do it even more. Instead try to praise your child when they’re not sucking their thumb. Punishing or nagging your child to stop won’t help either as often they don’t even realize they’re doing it. Practice self-awareness with your child by asking them if they realize that they’re doing it when their thumb is in their mouth. Avoid gloving the hand as a quick-fix to thumb or finger sucking as this will just frustrate them and cause more anxiety. Consider distracting your child with a substitute activity, such as a rubber ball to squeeze or finger puppets to play with. If a child turns to their thumb when they’re frustrated, help them put their feelings into words.