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The power of positive reinforcement in overcoming thumb sucking 

The power of positive reinforcement in overcoming thumb sucking 

Prolonged thumb sucking may affect speech in children. Here is how you can help them overcome this habit
thumb sucking, finger sucking, oral habits, milk tooth, dental health, oral health,
Representational image | Shutterstock

Aruna R from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu was worried about her five-year-old daughter Manasvi’s thumb-sucking habit, which began when she was just eight months old. The habit had grown stronger, especially during sleep, says Aruna. She tried various home remedies such as applying neem oil to her daughter’s thumb, but nothing worked. 

Aruna’s elder daughter had the same habit, which lasted till she was seven, and resulted in her upper teeth being tipped forward. 

Supporting healthy development 

Aruna did not want the same thing to happen to Manasvi. She took the child to a paediatrician who explained the consequences of thumb sucking through a pictorial story. “The doctor’s words and illustrations made an impact on Manasvi, and she gave up her habit,” says Aruna. 

Aruna began to make Manasvi’s favourite foods and surprise her with gifts on days she did not suck her thumb. This positive reinforcement worked well and the child gradually got out of the habit of thumb sucking. However, it took a lot of patience and determination from Aruna. 

A study conducted in the United States reported a 73 per cent incidence of thumb sucking among children between the ages of two and five. It states that the habit gradually reduces when children grow older. 

Reasons for thumb sucking 

Dr Abinaya KA, consultant paediatrician and lactation specialist from Namakkal, Tamil Nadu, says, “Thumb sucking, or finger sucking is a reflex mechanism present in infants that continues till they are four. If the habit persists after four years, intervention is required.” 

Thumb sucking soothes the child. According to the American Dental Association, it is a natural reflex that helps children fall asleep. 

Thumb sucking can either be a habit or the result of psychological factors. These include overprotective parents, neglect, loneliness, emotional insecurities, and anxieties. It may also be a form of seeking attention from parents. 

“When they are inside the womb, some babies may suck their thumbs. It can be seen during an ultrasound diagnosis,” says Dr Abinaya. 

Consequences of prolonged thumb sucking 

Dr Savithri M, a dentist from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, says, “When a child applies more pressure in the thumbs while placing it inside the mouth, it affects the milk tooth. However, the condition may resolve itself when the milk tooth falls.” 

She adds that if the habit persists during the eruption of permanent teeth, it eventually causes teeth to start moving out of position. Vigorous thumb sucking alters the roof of the mouth. A change in the tooth position affects speech and the child may be unable to pronounce certain sounds like “D” and “T”.

“Even two hours after birth, new-borns may begin sucking their thumbs or other fingers. However, long-term thumb sucking may cause infection in the nail folds (skin surrounding the nails) of the finger,” says Dr Abinaya. 

Dental effects

Experts say that oral habits that last for a long time may interfere with the development of jaws. In addition, it modifies swallowing patterns too. 

A study published in 2018 shows that non-nutritive habits like thumb sucking or finger sucking and pacifier use continuously for more than a year causes an open bite—a gap between the upper and lower front teeth when biting. 

“Flexing of cheek muscles while sucking can make the upper jaw narrower. It eventually causes crossbite (misalignment of teeth),” says Dr Savithri. 

Benefits of rewarding

Dr Abinaya includes the following comprehensive methods to break the habit:

If the child is using thumb sucking to get noticed, a strategy could be to not acknowledge the behaviour. If they do so unconsciously rather than to attract attention, then gently remind them to stop. Do not scold or criticise your child. 

Praise your child about his or her healthy behaviours. When your child is not sucking his or her thumb, offer small rewards such as their favourite toys, extra bedtime stories, or a trip to a park. 

Encourage your child to set realistic goals, such as not engaging in thumb sucking for an hour before bedtime. Use a sticker-marked calendar to keep track of the days when your child successfully refrains from the behaviour.

If your child’s habit is a result of stress, identify the underlying reason and provide comfort through alternative means like hugs or kind words.  

Solutions for thumb sucking 

Experts say that if the habit persists beyond six or seven years, dental appliances are given after careful reviewing of the face and shape of the mouth of the child.

Dr Savithri says that the habit breaker appliance helps to overcome thumb sucking. The appliance is attached to the roof of the mouth, which consists of cribs that prevent fitting of the thumb in the mouth. Wearing thumb guards serve as a reminder therapy to overcome the habit. 

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