Complications Can Occur if Thumb-Sucking not Halted
July 6, 2000

Dear Dr. Mady: My son is now 5 ½ years old and has been sucking his thumb for the several years. Do you know how I can get him to stop and if not, what can happen? - A Concerned Mom.

Dear Concerned Mom: Finger-sucking or thumb-sucking is a common habit among infants but if they do not give it up by the age of four, there is a problem.

If this habit continues beyond the age of six or seven when the adult teeth start erupting, then the results usually include crooked and misplaced teeth, a malformed palate (roof of the mouth), and what is called an "anterior open bite", where there is a space the size of the thumb between the top and bottom teeth, even when the jaws are closed.

There are many theories about the reasons why children suck on their thumbs or other objects.

It makes some children feel secure and safe. It is also a primary reflex that naturally occurs early in life for both emotional and physical nourishment (as in feeding).

This habit even occurs before birth, but if untreated can cause significant problems that are not easily reversible.

Boys are often shamed out of thumb-sucking at an earlier age than girls because it acknowledges dependency.

But if the need for soothing remains, it can lead to frustration and ultimately future habits such as nail biting.

This does not definitely mean that your son is experiencing deep insecurity in general, but you should look into the possibility that certain situations may exist that are causing him to feel insecure. These could even relate directly to the family itself.

If you have not already done so, I highly recommend that your child see your family dentist to discuss the problem. Your dentist will also make you aware of the many techniques that exist to treat this habit.

If you cannot get the results required with this advice, then your child may need to consult with a pediatric dentist who specializes in all areas of child related dental problems.

Before any treatment modality can be initiated it is imperative that your son recognize his habit, understand the consequences of continuing, and realize the benefits of not thumb-sucking.

This may not be as easy as it sounds but at his age he should be able to comprehend the facts fairly well and must have a strong desire to quit. If he is not willing to stop, then the pressure that you place on him will only result in resistance.

Things that may assist him in quitting, other than embarrassment at school, include placing a bandage on the thumb to constantly remind him not to do it and wearing of a glove or sock on the hand, especially during sleep.

Placing a non-toxic bad tasting substance on the thumb can also be useful. There are certain types of orthodontic appliances that can be placed by your dentist or dental specialist, which prevent the placement of the thumb in the mouth and act as a good reminder.

The fixed type is preferred due to the fact that the removable-style makes non-compliance easier. It is important that you make your child understand that these appliances are not a punishment but merely a reminder. When the appliance is placed, your dentist may even have pictures to show your child of what could happen if the thumb-sucking is not ceased.

No matter which road you choose, make sure to give your child attention and understanding and gently discourage the habit. Offer rewards and praise your child when he starts to improve.

If your son is just starting school, maybe the peer pressure there is all that he will need to get him on the road to quitting. The whole process may be as exhausting for you as it is for him.

Good Luck!

This column is reprinted with the permission of the author and The Windsor Star. "Ask the Dentist" is written by Windsor dentist (and ECDS member), Dr. David Mady Jr.. The column appears the first Thursday of each month in the Windsor Star. Readers with questions can write to "Ask The Dentist", c/o The Windsor Star, 167 Ferry St., Windsor Ontario, N9A 4M5



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