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Thumb sucking is a behavior found in humans, chimpanzees and many other primates. It usually involves placing the thumb into the mouth and rhythmically repeating sucking contact for a prolonged duration. It can also be accomplished with any piece of skin within reach (such as the big toe) and is considered to be soothing and therapeutic for the person.

Infants may use pacifier or thumb or fingers to soothe themselves.

At birth, a baby will reflexively suck any object placed in its mouth; this is the sucking reflex responsible for breastfeeding. This reflex disappears at about four months of age; thumb sucking is not purely an instinctive behavior and therefore can last much longer. Moreover, ultrasound scans have revealed that thumb sucking can start before birth, as early as fifteen weeks after conception. Whether this behavior is voluntary or due to random movements of the fetus in the womb is not conclusively known.

Children suck on objects including pacifiers to soothe themselves; sucking is one of a baby’s natural reflexes and completely typical for babies and young children. As a child develops the habit, it will usually develop a “favorite” finger to suck on, in much the same way it develops a favorite hand to write with. It is not known if the preference for a hand to suck on affects handedness in any way, or vice versa.

Thumb sucking can start as early as 15 weeks of growth in the womb or within months of being born. Prior to 12 weeks, the fetus has webbed digits. Most thumb-suckers stop gradually by the time they are five years old. Nevertheless, many older children will retain the habit, some into adulthood.

Thumb-sucking can cause problems for dental development. To prevent their children from sucking their thumbs some parents use many conventional methods. Most children stop sucking on thumbs, pacifiers or other objects on their own between two and four years of age. No harm is done to their teeth or jaws until permanent teeth start to erupt. The only time it might cause concern is if it goes on beyond 6 to 8 years of age. At this time, it may affect the shape of the oral cavity or dentition.

* Praise children for not sucking, instead of scolding them when they do.

* If a child is sucking its thumb when feeling insecure or needing comfort, focus instead on correcting the cause of the anxiety and provide comfort to your child.

* If a child is sucking on its thumb because of boredom, try getting the child’s attention with a fun activity.

* Involve older children in the selection of a means to cease thumb sucking.

* The pediatric dentist can offer encouragement to a child and explain what could happen to its teeth if it does not stop sucking.

* Only if these tips are ineffective, remind the child of its habit by bandaging the thumb or putting a sock/glove on the hand at night.

Best Recommendations:

* Most children suck their thumbs or fingers at some time in their early life. The only time it might cause concern is if it goes on beyond 6 to 8 years of age or affects the shape of the child’s mouth and the position of teeth.

* Children suck on objects as a natural reflex; however, during and after the eruption of the permanent teeth, such sucking may cause problems with the skeletal development of the mouth and alignment of the teeth.

Generally, thumb-sucking before the age of two is normal and harmless. If thumb-sucking is not stopped by the age of five, then parents should use a suitable method to discourage the act. Prolonged thumb-sucking may contribute to crowded and/or crooked teeth development and bite problems.

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Brenda C , Mississauga, ON