Thumb sucking for very young children is a natural and spontaneous gesture and a way to get to know the world but, when it continues after the age of three, it becomes a bad habit which can lead to alterations in the teeth position and, in most severe cases, in the arch shape.
So, when and how should we intervene for solving the thumb sucking problem, without triggering an opposite answer from our kid and prevent possible oral problems?
The first thing to do is to ask ourselves why our kid sucks his thumb.
This is Doctor Leonella Caliari‘s first recommendation. She is the orthodontist who has directed the Centro Ortodontico Vicentino since 2006.
The act of thumb sucking is a compensation operation towards a stress situation, it is a search for self-consolation and comfort.
When I explain this, moms are surprised and ask me: “how come such a young child is already subjected to stress?”
Because the adaptation to the new world around him and the separation from his mom are radical changes which can represent sources of stress.
Thumb sucking gives him pleasure and, by reminding him of the mom’ breast, it gives him pleasant and comforting sensations.
When should we worry?
After the age of three, prolonged thumb sucking can cause changes in the teeth position. Furthermore, in some case can provoke also very marked alterations in the shape of dental arches, especially if the kid already has a natural imbalance between the upper jawbone and the jaw.
If protracted over time, this bad habit can also alter swallowing and speech, requiring long orthodontic and speech therapy treatments to bring the situation back to normal. This is why it is advisable not to underestimate this bad habit.
Which small strategies are indicated to help our little ones to stop?
The visit with the orthodontist surely can represent an important moment in which the kid becomes aware that what he is doing is not ok.
Over the many years of working with children, I came up with a series of behavioural strategies, a result of comparison with many experts in the sector. These help me to enter the kid’s world and to talk to him on free and relaxed level, thus undertaking a friendly face to face conversation, without the presence of the parent or any other figure.
Our chat involves a series of questions which goal is to make him aware of the wrong habit. My aim is to show him how thumb has caused, or is causing, a dental shift, get him to ask for the necessary help to stop and make the big effort.
If the kid agrees, I ask his mom to help him with some small band-aids to put on the finger which, when the thumb enters the mouth, remind him of the commitment made with me and himself.
I involve both children and parents
I like to actively involve children with simple but important “home assignments”, such as marking on a colored calendar when “the thumb did not enter the mouth” and showing me during the next check-up.
This helps to leave trace of progress and show me how good they were at handling the thumb.
I get moms involved by explaining them that the night usually represents the moment in which the kid often needs to suck to compensate some fears, such as the dark or loneliness.
I therefore recommend them to go to the kid’s room, coddle him and leave a small sign of their passage to be noticed in the morning and make him realize that he is not alone during the night and so he does not need his thumb as a friend.
Are there secrets to be successful?
Actually, there are no magical recipes. The important thing is to reassure kid during our entire process together. I work to gain his trust and at the same time keep that necessary friendly separation between doctor and patient, so that the kid continues to be an active part.
You should listen to the reasons of his failures without scolding nor punishing him, but rather encouraging him and rewarding him through verbal compliments and a nice final reward.
What if this is not enough?
In most cases these simple strategies will be very successful. Sometimes this procedure may not be enough and you could find useful some simple sucking exercises to be done together with a parent, aimed at reducing the need to suck.
If this also fails, I use small protections to be placed inside the mouth and prevent the thumb from entering. In this case, before proceeding, I talk about it with the kid. This phase is important to understand if he can accept this device, as all forced strategies have proven to fail without the patient’s complicity.
The authority of an external professional figure…
However, it is important that all these methods are being suggested by an adequate and external professional figure like mine. We must consider that the interruption of a wrong habit represents a moment of comparison and growth which implies making a responsible commitment. If it is done in front of a stranger, it is more easily to be honoured.
Let’s remember that, even if they are kids, with the right involvement and stimuli, they will surprise us and make their parents change idea, even when they have lost hope of eliminating their habit.