by: Michael Kabel
It's a natural part of growing up for countless millions of children – in fact, its very sight is a synonym for immaturity. But at what age does thumb sucking pose a danger to children's developmental health?
Why do children suck their thumbs?
Thumb sucking is a temporary habit, or phase, that children go through when they're feeling the natural sucking instinct. In very young babies and small children, it's a completely natural reaction. Studies indicate as many as ninety percent of all children suck their thumbs.
The sucking instinct usually goes away on its own once babies reach the age of five or six months. But the relaxation it provides may encourage some children to continue for weeks or even years more, especially when they become uncomfortable. When children are tired, restless, bored, sleepy, or experience other unpleasant feelings, they may suck their thumbs as a way of relaxing.
In certain cases some older children may suck their thumbs as a form of easing anxiety or negative emotions after a traumatic event.
How old is too old?
In general, children past the age of three years old should not suck their thumb on a regular, habitual basis. Fortunately, statistics show that almost all children have stopped by that time.
Among children who suck their thumbs past the normal age, experts found only a strong history of thumb sucking distinguished them from other children the same age. In other words, once the habit goes on too long, it's sometimes very difficult to set aside.
What harm comes from too much thumb sucking?
Dentists warn that prolonged thumb sucking can develop jaw and tooth problems. In particular, thumb sucking into childhood can cause malocclusion, or a poor aligning of the upper and lower teeth. Though malocclusion eventually goes away once a child breaks the habit, the longer they continue the more likely an orthodontist's help will be required in aligning the teeth.
Prolonged thumb sucking also causes problems with speech development, including causing the development of a lisp and trouble prounouncing certain consonant sounds.
How can parents help their children break the thumb sucking habit?
Child experts say forcibly taking the child's thumb out of their mouth will, ironically, only encourage them to suck it when parents are not around. Instead, the parent should work to help the child understand the need to quit.
Some parenting counselors recommend distracting the child when they suck their thumbs, engaging them in conversation or asking them to do something more productive with their hands.
The old folk remedy of painting clear nail polish on the thumb or using a similar averse therapy works in some cases but not in others. In cases of extreme dependance, children (like adults with a smoker's cough who refuse to quit) will learn to put up with the taste.
Dentists and doctors, teachers and other role models can often help parents convince the child to quit. Choosing a trusted authority figure - or someone the child likes and looks up to - is powerful medicine when impessing a favored trait on the child's mind. Praise and support from the parents, of course, is also always helpful.