At the tender age of four months, Micah Orvitz discovered his thumb -- and it was delicious. He soon became addicted, sucking it all day and all night, often while clinging to Rafiki the monkey, his favourite stuffed animal.
"I was ecstatic because it meant that he could self-soothe, and that's what helped him sleep through the night," recalls Mandie Orvitz. Micah was a colicky baby and never took to a pacifier, "so when he took his thumb I was very happy," says the Toronto mom of two boys.
Thumb sucking among babies and young children is very common -- some babies even discover their thumb in the womb. The act can often bring comfort and a sense of security to a child while offering parents some much-welcomed relief.
Kids and thumb sucking
Left unchecked, however, persistent thumb sucking can eventually affect jaw development and teeth alignment, even before a child's permanent teeth come in. Thumb sucking narrows the upper jaw, and many long-term thumb suckers also have an open bite at the front with their top teeth pushed out, commonly described as buckteeth.
"I think there's going to be an impact no matter what, but if you stop early in life, the tendency for correction will be higher," says Dr. Wendy Tang, a pediatric dentist based in Surrey, B.C. "Once the adult teeth come in and they're still sucking, then we pretty much will be looking at being more active in stopping it in terms of using orthodontic appliances."
Tang is quick to point out that thumb sucking among very young children isn't bad: "It's part of our natural reflex to suck," she says. "Babies use their mouths to explore and learn, so that's part of the reason why thumb sucking comes about.
"It helps relax them," she continues. "It soothes them and it also induces sleep, so when they're sucking their thumb they're trying to put themselves to sleep, and that's why it usually happens when they're tired."
How to encourage your child to stop thumb sucking
Knowing when to cut it off is key, according to Tang, who says that if kids stop thumb sucking before their permanent teeth come in, it's less likely to cause any long-term issues. Pediatric dentists try to encourage children to stop thumb sucking by four to five years of age at the latest, although parents may start trying earlier, depending on their child's readiness.
So before you start socking away money for your child's orthodontic fund, first consider the following advice.
1. Make sure your kids are ready
Before the age of three, children are usually too young to give up the thumb. "I think they have to be old enough to actually comprehend and understand the reasoning," says Tang.
Mandie Orvitz agrees: Micah wasn't ready to stop thumb sucking until he was three-and-a-half. "If you take it away too soon, it might not work," she says.
2. Remove crutches
For Micah, thumb sucking and holding his favourite stuffed animal -- which rarely left his side -- were inextricably linked. Once she felt Micah was ready, Orvitz started implementing a rule where her son could bring his stuffed animal with him in the car, but would then have to leave it there once they reached their destination.
"If he didn't have the stuffed animal with him, he wouldn't suck his thumb as often," she explains.
3. Look into your parenting bag of tricks
Distraction is a well-proven strategy in many situations, and thumb sucking is no different. Tang suggests giving a child a puzzle or toy to occupy his hands when you sense he's about to put his thumb in his mouth.
For Orvitz, a fun kiddie Band-Aid on Micah's thumb did the trick. Although Micah originally needed the Band-Aid after cutting his thumb, Orvitz continued using it even after the wound healed as it prevented him from sucking his thumb.
4. Use an authoritative figure
Tang says parents will often ask her to tell their kids to stop sucking their thumbs. "A lot of times just being an authoritative figure tends to help," she says, adding that kids tend to take the directive more seriously when it comes from her, and that this has worked for many patients.
"At home, parents can ask -- 'Do you remember what Dr. Wendy told you today?' -- and so that way it's a good reminder and that seems to stick in their minds a lot more than when it's Mommy saying it, because Mommy probably says it about 10 times a day."
5. Use positive reinforcement
When Micah stopped sucking his thumb, Orvitz took him to a toy store and bought him a little gift. His grandparents did the same, showing him how proud they were.
"That really encouraged him to continue with the good work," she says. "He knew it was a big step for him."
Tang also advises parents to use positive reinforcement, whether it's in the form of kind words, stickers or something else that will resonate with their child.
6. Don't force your kids
Although parents may get frustrated by a die-hard thumb sucker, getting angry is a losing strategy. "It's kind of like toilet training -- you can't really fault them," says Tang, adding that yelling will only make things worse, sometimes leading children to hide when they suck their thumb.
"They become so guilty about sucking, they will just not tell you. Whereas if you keep it positive you can work on it together and I think that works out better," she says. Most children naturally wean themselves as they get older, before their permanent teeth come in.
Even if it seems as though your little one would sooner part ways with his best friend than give up sucking on his favourite digit, Tang says parents should not lose hope. "Like anything else, you have to be persistent about helping them out," she says. "Don't get upset at your child, because a lot of times they don't want to do it, but they don't know how to stop."
She adds that parents should keep trying at different ages. "Try it when they're young, don't give up if they can't stop, and just keep trying as they get older because they change all the time," she says.
And if all else fails, know that your child's dentist is armed with some powerful tools that are almost guaranteed to work. "The next strategy is putting it in the dentist's hands to use an actual appliance to try to stop it," says Tang.