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Breaking the Thumb-Sucking Habit

Breaking the Thumb-Sucking Habit<
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Reaching a Merciless Age continued...

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.

Support, Guidance Key

"If a child who is older than 5 or 6 is still sucking his thumb and having difficulty stopping, parents ought to think about what they can do to help him," Hack says. Before insisting that a child go "cold turkey," it's important to observe how deeply entrenched your child's behavior is, she says. How often does your child suck and in front of whom? If it happens only at bedtime or in front of family members, it's a less serious problem than if it happens at school or in social situations.

Attempts to steer a child away from thumb-sucking can backfire if they are not tempered with support and guidance. Don't nag or reprimand your child, and don't pull a child's finger out of his mouth. These kinds of actions can result in a power struggle, experts say. "The truth is most kids over 6 really do want to stop, but they need some extra help," Goldstein says.

Simple Treatment Plan

Breaking a habit is a much easier feat when the child is a willing participant. Many parents have success with a simple behavioral approach that engages the child in the process. Here's how it works:

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