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Why it happens

Toddlers suck their thumbs because it's comforting and calming. Your toddler probably practiced this habit while he was still in the womb and perfected it as an infant.

Now he may turn to his thumb when he's tired, scared, bored, sick, or trying to adjust to challenges such as starting child care. He may also use his thumb to help him fall asleep at bedtime and to lull himself back to sleep when he wakes up in the middle of the night.

What to do about it

Don't worry. The American Dental Association says most children can safely suck their thumb – without damaging the alignment of their teeth or jaws – until their permanent teeth begin to appear. (Permanent teeth don't usually start to erupt until around age 6.)

Also, not all thumb-sucking is equally damaging. Experts say it's the intensity of the sucking and the tongue's thrust that deforms teeth and makes braces necessary later. Children who rest their thumb passively in their mouth are less likely to have dental problems than children who suck aggressively.

Observe your child's technique. If he sucks vigorously, you may want to begin curbing his habit earlier, say around age 4. If you notice any changes in his mouth or teeth, or if you're unsure whether your child's thumb-sucking is causing problems, consult your dentist.

If your child's thumb becomes red and chapped from sucking, try applying a moisturizer while he's sleeping. (If you apply it when he's awake, it may just end up in his mouth.)

Most children stop thumb-sucking on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. Some continue the habit longer, but peer pressure in school is often a very effective deterrent.

Let it go. Nagging or punishing your child won't help because he doesn't usually realize when he's sucking away. Besides, pressuring him to stop may intensify his desire to do it even more. And methods such as putting an elastic bandage on his thumb will seem like unjust punishment, especially because he indulges in the habit for comfort and security.

Try to wait it out. Children usually give up thumb-sucking when they find other ways to calm and comfort themselves, says pediatrician Suzanne Dixon.

For example, a toddler who's hungry may suck his thumb, but an older child (age 3 or 4) might simply open the refrigerator and look for something to eat or ask his parents for a snack instead.

Preempt thumb-sucking with other activities. If you can identify the times and places when your child is most likely to suck his thumb – while watching television, for example – consider distracting him with a substitute activity, such as a rubber ball to bounce or puppets to play with.

If he tends to suck his thumb when he's tired, try letting him nap longer. Or if he turns to it when he's frustrated, help him put his feelings into words.

The key is to notice when and where sucking occurs and try to divert his attention by offering an alternative.

Watch the video: If your child is thumb sucking, should you give a pacifier? (May 2022).


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