Tips to stop a child from thumb sucking

For some children it is not necessarily the thumb that they choose to suck, some choose two fingers while others go for all four fingers

Sunday February 7 2016

Help your child kick the habit of sucking

Help your child kick the habit of sucking his/her thumb 

By Josephine Esisa

For some children it is not necessarily the thumb that they choose to suck, some choose two fingers while others go for all four fingers. However sucking the thumb is the most common behaviour found in children less than five years of age. Research has found that it is actually normal for infants to sooth themselves with thumb sucking. It doesn’t mean that they have any mental or emotional problems but it instead brings them happiness.


Most infants abandon the habit right before they start kindergarten, while for others, the habit may linger past infancy.
Dr Jolly Nankunda, a senior consultant paediatrician at Mulago National Referral Hospital, says it is behaviour that is normal, starts quietly and is done only when children are not alert, but rather subconsciously.

Possible causes
“Children find some solace out of it, especially when left alone,” says Dr Nankunda, adding, “When children are not getting enough stimulation, they may resort to thumb sucking.”


Sometimes when a child is agitated or anxious and has cried a lot, he or she may resort to sucking the thumb, others may do it to make themselves comfortable, sooth themselves to sleep, or even when they are bored.
Jane Mukisa, a mother of two, says her first born started sucking his thumb at three months. “I had to go back to work after maternity leave. I blame the habit on the fact I was less available for my son and he wasn’t given constant attention compared to when I was always at home.”


Some mothers want their children to suck their thumb, to make them less troublesome as they do their chores. You may find some mothers forcing their babies to suck their thumb. “However, it isn’t a habit that can be forced but it is rather inherent,” Dr Nankunda points out.

Outcomes
Growth of the teeth maybe affected but this only depends on how the child sucks the thumb. Some do it so vigorously that it may affect the jawline or teeth however it only happens if the child continues sucking beyond the age of four years.


“Since the thumb is continuously moist as it’s always in the mouth, the child may develop fungal infections around the thumb, the nail may fail to grow or it will be constantly chapped,” Dr Nankunda explains.
She goes on to add that when a child starts crawling, especially in areas that are dirty he or she is exposed to germs and this may cause diseases such as diarrhoea.


Mukisa says her son developed speech problems due to thumb sucking, “He sucked his thumb until he was 12 years, even though his teeth were not so badly damaged, the alignment of his jaw line was deformed causing difficulty when he is saying some words. He lisps.”


Thumb sucking may also cause a child to be teased and emotionally tortured especially when they continue to suck their thumb as they become older. The paediatrician says, “Sometimes the peers may tease them and also isolate them or their teachers maybe brutal when they find a child sucking the thumb in class. This may cause low self-esteem and depression.”


Mary Kahunde, a mother, says her four-year-old is shy among her age mates. “She sometimes forgets that she is with friends and then sucks her thumb, the children tease her, lately, she isn’t eager to go play with peers.”

How to stop the habit

Some children usually stop sucking their thumbs on their own as they grow. However, some mothers keep their children’s hands in mittens because then, the babies will not have access to the fingers.
“People have tried to put unpleasant things on the child’s thumb, but some children are brilliant enough to figure it out and wash it off, some children voluntarily want to stop, so maybe put plaster on the fingers to help them stop the habit,” says Dr Jolly Nankunda.


Jane Mukisa says her son overcame this habit through applying bitter substances on the thumb. “He voluntarily asked me to apply bitter herbs on his thumb every night before he went to sleep, tasting something bitter automatically made him stop sucking and eventually he quit.”


When children go to school, they are inclined to stop, because they do not want to be teased. “When they are teased and made fun of, children make it a point to stop the habit because they don’t want to be humiliated,” says Mukisa.
“I’m trying to help my daughter stop this habit by limiting the amount of time she sucks her thumb to only when she is in the bedroom,” says Kahunde. She also tries to keep the child busy and entertained, prohibiting her from thumb sucking.


Dr Nankunda advises parents to explain to their children the permanent effects of thumb sucking. “Some children try to stop on their own once they have been told the effects.”
She also urges them to handle the children with care. “Many times parents want to forcefully stop it, but children find it normal so that does not help but instead encourages, since it gives a child comfort.” She suggests that parents should praise their child for not sucking, focus on correcting the cause of the anxiety and provide comfort to the child, for an older child, involve him or her in choosing the method of stopping, your dentist can offer encouragement to your child and explain what could happen to their teeth if they do not stop sucking.

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