Why does my child suck her thumb?

Sucking the thumb in older children can be embarrassing for them!

Thumb sucking is one of the most misunderstood habits of children.  Long thought of as “comforting to the child”, research has actually shown that thumb sucking helps kids eliminate discomfort from sinus, airway, and allergy problems.  How? Think of when you travel by airplane.  As the plane goes higher, your ears seemingly fill with air or fluid…and you learned early on that you should swallow or chew gum to make your ears pop to relieve the discomfort. If you have a baby with you, it is suggested you nurse or bottle-feed your baby during take-off and landing.  Chewing gum, swallowing, nursing…all create pressure which allow your Eustacian tubes (in your ears) to open a valve inside to clear the fluid and make you more comfortable.

Sucking the fingers or thumb (or pacifier for that matter) work by the same principle as ear popping during air travel.  If young children have poor drainage of their Eustacian tubes, or allergic mucus production, the sucking can clear the tubes in the ear, and also create more lubricant in the throat to allow the mucus to pass and allow the air to flow more freely during breathing.  In fact, many thumb suckers, if you watch closely, alternate between sucking and breathing through their mouths.  This is due to a relative difficulty with nose breathing.  Now think a little further.  Your child gets upset, cries, has a temper tantrum, and then to “calm down” sucks her thumb…right?  What else happens after a crying jag?  Your NOSE gets stuffy with extra mucus, your ears clog up…and the sucking helps clear all of that for easier breathing. Amazing!

So, what harm can thumb sucking do?

Aside from the obvious bacteria on your child’s fingers going into her mouth, there is the pressure from the fingers, thumb, or pacifier on the developing jaw.  This constant pressure (even if only at night) changes the way the jaw grows, making it more narrow with less room for the developing adult teeth.  As well, as the upper jaw gets more narrow, the airway gets more narrow, which can compound the problem. Want to potentially avoid the need for extensive orthodontic treatment down the road?  Stop the thumbsucking at as young an age as possible.

How can I get my child to stop?

This week on local radio station Majic 100 FM, I heard a conversation about the child of an announcer looking for ways to help his daughter stop thumb sucking, which prompted this blog.  If you have a baby…it’s easy.  Place those gloves meant to keep your baby from scratching herself .  Your baby will learn early on not to suck…problem solved easily.  When the child is older, you have to “enroll” her in the program.  You can explain that fingers are dirty and not for mouths, and that sucking can make the teeth “ugly”. When the child is ready to participate in the program, use a long knee-high adult sock, put in on the “sucking hand” with some tape around the top at night when your child goes to sleep.  Tell her when she falls asleep that she isn’t going to be a thumbsucker anymore, and when she wakes up with the sock still on, she will get a prize! (think dollar store) Repeat this every night for up to 4 weeks (totally worth the dollar store costs!), and get a BIG prize to celebrate!  You can also follow with a sticker chart, some children love these.

But if she “needs” the thumb sucking to help with her breathing…what do I do now?

Speak to your child’s medical doctor and get a consult for an ENT (ear, nose and throat specialist).  Other important factors to let your doctor know are mouth breathing habits, snoring, gasping for air during sleep, poor sleep, dry mouth, hyperactivity or anxiety.  If your child snores or stops breathing at any time while sleeping, record it with your smartphone and show your doctor!