Your Questions About Thumb-Sucking — Answered!

 In dentistry, general dentistry, pediatric dentistry, Uncategorized

At Blue Turtle Dental, we get a lot of questions about thumb-sucking, and what to do about it. It’s a common behavior for babies and small children, and understandably– parents want to know how thumb-sucking effects dental development!

To better assist our patients, we’ve put together a brief list of frequently asked questions regarding thumb-sucking to complement the help parents also receive from our dentists.

 

Why thumb-sucking?

Sucking actually begins as a very important reflex— called the sucking reflex— which is present in all new babies and helps them to begin nursing. As a matter of fact, this reflex is so strong at the beginning of life that during an ultrasound, parents-to-be can sometimes see their growing baby already sucking her thumb in utero!

The sucking reflex is known as a primitive reflex, a set of very old reflexes that can be found in all healthy newborns. Some of these reflexes– like the moro, or startle reflex– don’t have a lot of use today, while others– like the rooting reflex– still help newborns gain nutrition and help them bond with their parents.

 

My child is no longer an infant– why is she still sucking her thumb?

Your child is not alone. Other primates also suck their thumbs long past the days when they were nursing. Sucking behavior is actually very normal behavior in young children.

Sucking on thumbs, fingers, or a pacifier or toy becomes a comfort measure for many children– they use this behavior to self-soothe when overwhelmed or sad, to calm themselves at the end of the day or before sleep, to show contentment, even sometimes if they’re just hungry or bored! Young children are still learning about self-regulation. At this stage of life, they don’t have a lot of the tools that we adults do; so, they suck their thumbs.

 

If this behavior is normal, why should I be concerned?

This is the most common question we hear at Blue Turtle Dental. As normal and natural as thumb-sucking is, this behavior can also cause problems with development. Some problems we’ve seen connected are:

 

Most children naturally stop sucking their thumbs before these problems develop, but for the die-hards out there– kids who suck their thumbs for a long time, or extremely vigorously– it’s important to be aware of the potential complications of this.

 

When should I be concerned?

Again, keep in mind that most children will naturally wean themselves away from thumb-sucking– usually between three and five years of age. Children who continue sucking their thumbs after ages five or six are at a greater risk for malocclusion or speech problems, and this is when we start to get concerned.

Besides your child’s age, there are some other signs to be on the look-out for that will tell you if thumb-sucking has become a problem for your child:

 

  • child shows embarrassment or shame about thumb-sucking behavior (such as hiding, or pulling hand away)
  • child develops a callous from sucking (this shows the child is sucking too much or with excessive vigor that could cause problems with dental development)
  • child pulls on or chews her hair while sucking (this could be an indicator of a larger anxiety problem)

Please keep in mind, these instances are outside the norm. Usually, thumb-sucking both resolves itself, and is not involved in anxious behaviors.

 

What can I do if my child will not stop sucking his or her thumb?

If thumb-sucking becomes a problem, our dentists are here to help parents and patients address it. Because our philosophy at Blue Turtle Dental is to provide excellent preventive dental care, our dentists work with parents early to stop thumb-sucking before it becomes a problem. There are even some home remedies they suggest:

 

  • provide distracting activities when your child starts thumb-sucking
  • praise your child for not thumb-sucking
  • limit “sucking time” to just before sleep and naps, thus normalizing awake time as “non-sucking”
  • create a reward system for non-sucking

At Blue Turtle Dental, we recognize that all our patients are unique, and we pride ourselves in providing the dental care that fits each patient. If you believe this is effecting your child’s dental health, please don’t hesitate to visit us in our Palo Alto office. Let us work with you to make sure your child has the best pediatric dental care!

Photo Credit: Byron and Tamara via Compfight cc

 

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