Sporting Smiles
A Great Dentist

The Thumb... a Hard Habit to Break

September 26, 2013
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Posted By: Dr. Natasha

Did you know that more than 75% of infants suck their thumbs, fingers and/or pacifiers through the first year of life? Most children turn to their thumb or pacifier when bored, tired, or upset. It is fairly common to see a child simultaneously engage in other behaviors (ie. tugging on an ear, twirling a strand of hair, or clinging to a blanket, comfort pillow or favorite stuffed animal). As children move on into the preschool years, most outgrow the habit. However, one in five children will still continue the habit up to their 5th birthday.

In the short term, these habits can be very soothing to a child. However in the long run, frequent thumb, finger or pacifier sucking can have harmful effects on a growing child’s mouth. Beyond a simple overbite or flaring of the front teeth, some children develop speech problems: troubles with the “S” and other “tongue-tip” sounds. This prolonged habit can also cause minor physical problems like chapped skin, calluses, fingernail infections and even the abnormal bony development of the finger itself.

The dental complications listed above are treatable with orthodontic care, but as a preventative measure, it is advised by pediatric dental specialists that children discontinue this habit before 36 months of age.

The number one dental emergency we see here at Sporting Smiles is trauma sustained to the front teeth and lips as a result of flaring from years of thumb and/or pacifier use. Minor chips, fractures and even completely knocking out a flared front tooth are dental injuries that are more common than you might think! This applies to patients as young as 12 months to3 years and even our older teenagers! For children with evidence of flaring permanent teeth, it is strongly recommended that until their bite is corrected with orthodontic treatment they wear a protective mouth guard during contact sports or activities. Contact us at Sporting Smiles today with any mouth guard questions. Our doctors are members of the Academy of Sports Dentistry and consider themselves experts on protective gear!

At Sporting Smiles, we share the following finger and pacifier cessation techniques with parents:
• A calendar with stickers denoting every day your child has been pacifier or thumb free
• A jar to place coins in every time your child remembers to take his/her thumb out of their mouth
• A decorative sock puppet or mitten for your child to wear on the offending hand at bedtime*
* can be used in combination with #1 and #2! 
• A finger splint, fabric or plastic, tape, or bandage acts as a reminder to older children not to suck
• A ‘Binky Fairy’ (sister to the Tooth Fairy, of course) party for younger children who believe their pacifier will be given to another child who needs it more than they do!
• Placing bitter tasting liquid such as hot sauce, vinegar or bitter nail polish on the nail of the offending finger
• Children often suck their thumbs when feeling insecure or needing comfort. Focus on correcting the cause of the anxiety and provide comfort to your child.

Feedback from one of our favorite patients who successfully beat his habit!

“I think a couple of things made it successful for him.
1. He was 100% motivated to get a transformer out of the deal!
2. He only sucked his fingers when he was in bed because he only sucked them when he had his blanket… so it was easy for him to wear the sock only in bed- he loved that he decorated the sock too!
3. He must have been ready 

It’s still working- we cannot believe it! Now onto the 18 month old and his ‘blanket sucking’…. 1 down, and 1 more to go!”

– Michelle L.
(Hudson’s Mommy)

Many parents ask us for advice on how to steer their child away from thumb sucking. After assessing each pediatric dental patient’s individual needs, we stress to parents that even the best cessation techniques can backfire and result in a power struggle. Positive reinforcement and repetition is instrumental! These are two behavior modification techniques that we fully believe in and implement at Sporting Smiles. Breaking the habit is much easier when a child is a willing participant. This also applies to the pacifier; however in this case the parent must be the willing participant. Pacifier cessation is difficult and requires patience and perseverance for both parent and child. Remember, engaging your child and then rewarding them will likely yield positive results! Keep smiling!

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