Why is my child thumb sucking?

December 1, 2016

“Seriously, the thumb sucking is driving me crazy!” one parent told me.  “There has got to be a way to stop this.  Why is this even a thing?”  Again, in the list of questions that should have made me a millionaire by now, this is not unusual.  After convincing this parent there was no malicious plot between their child’s peer group to slowly drive them to insanity with the gentle to ferocious sound of thumb sucking, my answer was less than satisfactory, “They want to.”

 

My answer, which is totally correct, is usually not what parents are looking for.  Let’s begin with the right questions, 1. How can I get my kid to stop? 2. Should I be worried? 3. Is this going to cause some long-term harm?  If your first search for answers is online you’re likely to come across something that sounds like it was unearthed from under the ratty tie-dyed wisdom of a burnt-out hippie:  Positive reinforcement, gentle reminders, calming responsive parental patience.  Pardon me while I vomit.

 

Understand that many babies are sucking their thumb while still in the womb.  It’s a self-soothing behavior usually accompanied by stress, sadness or a lack of sleep.  I come from a hearty line of thumb suckers and do not have a problem with the act. Eventually there will be a time when this activity needs to stop.

 

Pediatric dentists say that thumb sucking after the age of two could affect the shape of the upper palate (roof of the mouth), the angle of the jaw affecting their baby teeth and potentially permanent teeth.  This is a perfectly good reason to stop thumb sucking.  Currently I have two kids in braces.  Anything that can be done to avoid the expense of double braces is a good thing.  Someday when you see me zipping around in a new Ferrari you’ll know I’m done funding our orthodontist.  As a footnote only one of the two kids was a thumb sucker.  Go figure.

      

How do we stop this?  The idea of positive reinforcement and gentle reminders is great but you’ll notice the hippies haven’t taken over the world.  If this idea is any indication of their potential success and wisdom we should continue seeking actual working ideas.  I think it’s alright to describe the thumb as a nasty place where germs and dirt happily look for ways into the body to promote illness. Dipping the thumb into vinegar or hot sauce so it tastes nasty is good too.  There are some online products like thumb guards or thumb gloves which work pretty well.  I ended up putting multiple band aids on my son’s thumb and he stopped in three days without causing any trauma that could lead to years of costly therapy.

 

Some medical folks have said these tactics can permanently scar your child.  This is classically referred to as “psychobabble.”  Personally, I say let them suck their thumb in peace until about 18 months.  Around a year and a half of age work on getting them to stop.  Your child will be fine.  If you can get them to stop soon enough to avoid braces you can start saving for your Ferrari.  Vroom!