Infants have a natural instinct to suck as a way of nourishing and soothing themselves. Often, this leads to the child sucking on his or her fingers, a blanket, a stuffed animal or his or her thumb. Usually, this habit is given up by age four. If it continues it can be extremely detrimental to the development of the teeth and jaws, causing crooked teeth, an incorrect bite, speech problems and/or open-mouth breathing. This habit may result in psychological trauma if it continues into school age, when other children tease.

What should a parent do? If possible, try to switch the child to a properly designed pacifier that fits the shape of the mouth. Pacifiers are less likely to create the same developmental problems (because they distribute forces over greater area), are usually discarded by the child at an earlier age and are easier to hide than a thumb.

If the thumb sucking takes place during the day, discuss the problem with the child to discourage the habit. Placing a band-aid on the thumb as a reminder may help. Be positive and praise the child when he or she remembers. And reward the success.

It is more difficult to control thumb sucking when the child is asleep, because the child is unaware of this involuntary action. So, try this habit-breaking technique that is usually successful within two weeks. Before the child goes to bed, wrap a 2-inch wide ace bandage lightly around his or her fully extended (straight) arm. Start about three inches from the armpit and continue down past the elbow. This will not prevent your child from putting the thumb into the mouth. However, as soon as the child falls asleep, the tension created by bending the elbow will pull the thumb from the mouth.

If your child is still sucking on his or her thumb or anything else by the time the permanent teeth erupt (around age 6), please call it to the attention of your dentist.

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