Thumb Sucking and Children
More than three-quarters of infants suck their thumbs or fingers through the first year of life. For these children, thumb sucking is an appropriate and useful behavior that allows them to soothe and entertain themselves. A child usually turns to his thumb when he is tired, upset or bored. It is not unusual for a thumb sucker to simultaneously engage in other self-comforting behaviors like pulling at a strand of hair, touching an ear, or holding onto a blanket or stuffed toy.
Specialists agree that a thumb sucker younger than age five shouldn't be pressured to stop. The majority of children give up such habits on their own before they enter kindergarten. Even when the habit lingers past infancy, thumb sucking is rarely something to be concerned about. It does not indicate that a child has emotional problems or that he will still be sucking his finger when he's a teenager.
Nevertheless, about fifteen percent of children will continue thumb sucking past their fifth birthday. This is an age when teasing often starts, causing social difficulties for children once they reach school age.
Thumb sucking also can lead to dental problems. A child who is still sucking his thumb by age five, when permanent teeth start coming in, may develop an abnormal bite. In addition, prolonged thumb sucking can cause minor physical problems, such as chapped lips or cracked skin, calluses, or fingernail infections. If a child older than five or six is still sucking his thumb and is having difficulty stopping, parents ought to think about what they can do to help.
Before insisting that a child go "cold turkey," it is important to observe how deeply entrenched the behavior is. If it happens only at bedtime or in front of family members, it is less serious.
Attempts to steer a child away from thumb sucking can backfire if not tempered with positive support and guidance. Refrain from nagging and reprimands or pulling a finger out of a child's mouth - these can result in a power struggle. The truth is most kids over six really do want to stop but need some extra help.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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