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You are here : 3-RX.com > Medical Encyclopedia > Special Topics > Thumb Sucking
      Category : Health Centers > Children's Health

Thumb Sucking

Alternate Names : Finger Sucking

Sucking on the thumb or other fingers is a normal activity in children. Infants and young children often suck their thumb or fingers to console themselves.

What is the information for this topic?

Children suck on their thumbs or fingers for different reasons and at different times. Thumb sucking may occur when children are ill, upset, about to fall asleep, or being quiet. It is also a way for them to cope with bedtime and other stressful events.

Infants who suck their hand or thumb during the first 3 months of life seem to cry less than infants who don't. Also, allowing infants to suck during a painful procedure seems to reduce the signs of pain.

Thumb and finger sucking usually appear in the first several months of life. Thumb sucking peaks when children are 2 1/2 to 3 years old. At least 50% of children in the US suck their thumb or fingers during infancy. Almost 30% of American children suck their thumbs at the time of their third birthday. Most children have quit on their own by the time they are 4 or 5 years old.

The main concern over thumb sucking is dental problems. Children who stop sucking their thumbs by age 5 usually will not have dental problems. But the facial structures and the teeth develop rapidly between the ages of 4 and 14. Children who suck their thumbs or fingers after age 5 can cause problems in these structures. Problems may include:

  • poor alignment of the teeth
  • abnormal swallowing with tongue thrusting
  • distortion of facial features
  • speech disorders, especially when pronouncing the letters "d" and "t," and a lisp
  • Thumb sucking should be seen as a normal part of infancy and young childhood. Caregivers should not put bitter substances on the thumb or pin the hands in a sleeve or mitten. Scolding or punishing a child for thumb sucking is usually not helpful. This may only bring about a struggle with the child over who controls his or her body. Scolding may even serve to reinforce and prolong the habit. Ignoring a child's thumb sucking is advised by most experts.

    Children who suck their thumbs regularly beyond age 3 need to be seen by a dentist. This will help determine if treatment is needed. Treatment usually includes the use of appliances that are put in the mouth. These appliances help correct the poor alignment of the teeth and break the sucking habit. Sometimes the dentist can stop the habit just by talking to the child about the problems with thumb sucking.

    Author: John Wegmann, MD
    Reviewer: Adam Brochert, MD
    Date Reviewed: 08/09/01

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