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Breaking the Thumb-Sucking Habit

Breaking the Thumb-Sucking Habit<
By
WebMD Feature

My 8-year-old, Michael, had me concerned. He was finishing up third grade and still sucked his thumb.

"What can I do to make him stop?" I asked my pediatrician. His grandmother had been successful the previous summer at getting him to quit during a week-long stay at her house. Her remedy: Give him undivided grandma love and reward his efforts daily. Once home, the habit returned.

"Is finger-sucking normal at this age?" I wanted to know. I found out it was not. Fortunately, the problem wasn't serious, but the solution would require patience and determination -- on my part and his.

Most Infants Self-Pacify

Most experts agree that a thumb-sucker younger than 5 shouldn't be pressured to stop. Most children will give up the habit on their own before they enter kindergarten.

"Thumb-sucking is an appropriate and useful behavior for very young children," says Linda Goldstein, MD, a Washington pediatrician. "It allows them to comfort and entertain themselves."

In fact, more than three-quarters of infants suck their thumbs or fingers through the first year of life. A child usually turns to the thumb when bored, tired, or upset. It is not uncommon to see a thumb-sucker simultaneously engage in other behaviors, such as twirling a strand of hair, holding onto an ear, or rubbing a blankie.

"Even when the habit lingers past infancy, thumb-sucking is rarely something to be concerned about. It doesn't indicate that a child has emotional problems or that he will still be sucking his finger when he's a teenager," says Sabine Hack, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.

Reaching a Merciless Age

As children move past toddlerhood and into the preschool years, the thumb-sucking crowd begins to dwindle. Nevertheless, one in five children will still be sucking his thumb or finger past his 5th birthday. "This is the merciless age, the time when teasing begins. Parents begin to worry because the thumb-sucking is causing social difficulties for the child," Goldstein says. "By kindergarten you'll find that kids don't want to play or sit next to a child who's a thumb-sucker."

Thumb-sucking also can lead to dental problems. A child who is still thumb-sucking by age 5, when permanent teeth start coming in, may develop an abnormal bite. Beyond a simple overbite, some children develop speech problems: troubles with the "S" sound and other "tongue-tip" sounds, according to Forrest Umberger, PhD, a professor of special education and communications disorders at Valdosta State University in Georgia.

"Many of our clients are referred to us by orthodontists," says Umberger, who has studied the role of thumb-sucking in muscle and facial pathology. "The idea is not just to do a cosmetic fix but to help children correct the speech difficulties once the sucking habit is gone."

Prolonged finger-sucking also can cause minor physical problems like chapped skin, calluses, and fingernail infections. In Michael's case, the second finger on his right hand became shriveled up, and the nail barely grew. During winter the skin on that finger would become dry and cracked, which only seemed to make him want to suck it more.

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