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Breaking the thumb sucking habit

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

It’s a classic image: the little child sucking its thumb. However, what looks sweet and natural in a baby looks out of place in an eight year old.

So when should you be concerned about thumb sucking and how can you wean your child off their favourite digit?

It comes naturally

Thumb-sucking is pretty normal in babies and young children. They may also suck on their fingers or on a dummy.

Even ultrasound scans can show an unborn child sucking its thumb, so it’s a natural occurrence.

At first babies have a natural urge to suck - it is self-soothing. They keep doing it as they get older for a variety of reasons. They may be hungry, sleepy, scared or bored and it can become a habit.

Siobhan Freegard, founder of the parenting site Netmums says: "Thumb sucking is a very common habit with around 45% of toddlers doing it, but most naturally grow out of it."

Most children stop on their own accord by around the age of 5. There are too many other fun activities to take part in and distractions like toys, friends and school.

Problems if it goes on for too long

If your child is over the age of five and still sucks their thumb you may want them to break the habit.

"Studies show 15% of five-year-olds and one in 20 children aged 11 still suck their thumbs," says Siobhan.

Teasing: If your child sucks his thumb at school he may be teased and thought of as a baby by other children.

Teeth: There’s no great problem with milk teeth but when the older teeth start to come through, thumb sucking can be problematic and cause overbite.

Professor Nairn Wilson, from the British Dental Association says: "Regular thumb sucking can lead to a malalignment of the teeth, pushing the upper teeth forward whilst the lower teeth are pushed back."

He says orthodontic treatment such as braces may be needed once the thumb sucking has stopped and in some cases thumb sucking can even lead to a change in the shape of the palate due to the pressure on the bones of the mouth."

"If you are concerned about excessive thumb sucking then you should visit your dentist who will be able to discuss possible treatment, which could possibly involve referral to a psychologist."

Speech problems: If your child speaks with a thumb in their mouth they may have difficulty with certain sounds and develop a lisp or the inability to pronounce certain sounds properly.

Chapped skin: Constantly sucking on a thumb may cause irritated and dry skin or nail infections.

Parenting author and expert Karen Doherty says, "Left to their own devices, children will naturally grow out of it.

"The tip I gave my three who sucked their thumbs was that they might not like to suck them at school in case their teachers told them not to or to avoid other children giving them a hard time.

"I told them it was fine to keep sucking their thumbs at home. In the end they all gave up when they were ready and their teeth returned to normal."

It’s not always that simple. A survey in 2010 discovered that more than one in 10 adults in the UK admitted they still sucked their thumb or fingers.

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