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Sucking on a thumb, finger, or pacifier, is natural for many young children. In fact, many infants begin sucking their fingers or thumbs prior to their birth. Most children do stop this on their own at approximately four years of age. However, some are reluctant to kick the habit.
Usually, no permanent harm is done to the teeth or jaws as long as the habit is stopped before the adult teeth start coming into the mouth. This is usually around six years of age. If your child is a tenacious sucker and repeatedly sucks on a finger, pacifier, or other object over long periods of time, his or her front teeth may tip outward toward the lip. In these children the front teeth may not even touch when they smile. Once a child stops sucking, often the lips will pull the teeth back on their own. However, if your child persists with this habit after the adult teeth start coming into the mouth, then orthodontic treatment may be required to correct his or her smile.
Breaking the pacifier habit is often easier than that of the thumb. The toughest part is to get your child down to sucking on only one pacifier. Usually this is tougher on the parent than the child. If your child is constantly throwing the pacifier on the ground or getting it dirty, clean off the pacifier and then give it back. This will help the child learn to cope without the pacifier for short periods of time. Once your child is comfortable with only one pacifier then they are ready to continue onto the next step.
The next step is to break the child’s dependence on the pacifier. This is done slowly over a period of time. All you have to do is simply get a scissors and snip off a very small part of the tip of the pacifier (Approximately 1mm). Make sure that there are no sharp edges. Then give the pacifier to your child. If you proceed slowly, your child will not even realize that it has been altered. Every couple of days snip off more from the tip. Eventually only the hub of the pacifier will be left. When that happens, the child will no longer receive any pleasure from sucking on the pacifier, and will throw it away. The important thing to remember is not to push them to quickly. Otherwise, their finger or thumb will become a natural replacement for the pacifier.
Stopping your child from sucking their thumb or finger is more difficult than the pacifier. The important thing to remember is that sucking is a habit for children. Just like smoking is a habit for adults. As with adults, not many children can simply go “cold turkey” and quit a habit. Your child must be emotionally and mentally ready to stop. Most children want to be thought of as a big girl or boy, and emulate the behavior of their parents. Hopefully your child will see that neither mommy nor daddy sucks their thumb and they will be motivated to stop.
When your child is ready to quit this habit, it must be approached delicately. Your child may not even realize how often their finger is in their mouth. All they know is that when they are sucking they feel secure. Thus the first step in breaking an unconscious habit is to bring it to the conscious level. Gently remind your child every time you see them sucking on their finger. “Sweetie, your thumb is in your mouth.” If they are truly ready to stop, they will say to themselves, “Oh, yea, I forgot.” Once they are reminded, then they will take their thumb out of their mouth. Sometimes placing a Band-Aid on their thumb is all that is needed as a reminder.
Children need constant encouragement, especially when they are trying to tackle such a difficult undertaking. Thus, set goals and celebrate when they are met. First try to go for an hour without sucking, then half a day, and finally a full day.
Once your child has learned to cope without sucking for an entire day, then they are ready to conquer bedtime sucking. This may be accomplished by placing a sock or mitten over the hand that they like to suck. If they try sucking while they are asleep, there will be no pleasure, and also it will bring the habit to a conscious level. If you find that the mitten or sock is off of their hand in the morning, then you know that they were sucking at night. If that doesn’t work, place an Ace Bandage loosely around their elbow. Wrap it such that the bulk of the bandage prevents them from bending their elbow. Make sure that the circulation is not cut off to their arm. If your child cannot bend his or her elbow, then it is impossible for them to suck their fingers. Remember to set goals and celebrate when your child lasts all night without sucking. Then go for two days and nights, then a week, etc.
With understanding, support, and encouragement from parents and your pediatric dentist, most children can stop on their own. Allow your child to break the habit on his or her own and gain a sense of accomplishment. It is important that your child should never be threaten or feel ashamed if the habit persists. Remember that there will be some setbacks, just like when they were being toilet trained. You and your child survived toilet training and you will both make it through this together. Also conquering such a difficult task as this may teach your child how to problem solve and meet goals in the future. If the habit persists contact your pediatric dentist for assistance.