The Unbearable ‘Cuteness’ of Thumb Sucking: things every parent should know about oral habits, mouth & face development

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Thumb finger and ‘dummy’ or pacifier sucking is an age-old habit that many young children have. By way of clarification; pacifier is the US term and ‘dummy’ is the Australian term, for the same object. Thumbs fingers and dummies are not the only things, some kids go to lip, tongue, hair and clothes sucking, in fact any pattern of behaviour like this lands under the banner of ‘oral habit’.

Endorphins feel sooooo good

A pleasurable past time for kids and their parents! There is no doubt that an endorphin release becomes associated with this pleasurable past time. One little girl a 5 year-old, recently told me that finger sucking was her ‘medicine’. In fact, it is common for a child to be given a dummy to help calm them. I hear parents saying many more times than I can count things like;

She’s so cute when she’s sucking her thumb
I sucked mine ‘til I was 12, what’s the problem?
The dummy is the only way he can get to sleep
No one, knows at school so it doesn’t matter
He’ll never cope, worse he’ll never sleep if I take away the dummy
It’s the only way she can calm down
It doesn’t matter if it wrecks his teeth now, the orthodontists will fix them later
I’ve tried everything to stop it, nothing works

So, what to do? Whether these statements are based in fact or wives’ tales, here-say or wisdom passed down from family elders a few facts remain. Yes, some kids do love to suck and yes there is endorphin release and yes, the brain learns to associate many things with sucking apart from pleasure: comfort when upset, tired, sick or bored, going to sleep are very common. Many kids are not even aware they are doing it until they go to school and realise often incidentally, that sucking in public is not the ‘done thing’ and that most other kids are not doing it or that it is not desirable one way or another.

So what is the big deal?

There is no doubt that the peace quiet and serenity that accompanies an oral habit is comforting to parents. The eye glaze of endorphin release is too, a source of bliss for parents to see. And yet, research shows us that prolonged oral habits can and do affect jaw and facial growth and development. Often times, an oral habit leads to malocclusion or ‘bad bite’, this in turn has a knock-on effect to airway health growth and development, distorted chewing, swallowing and speaking patterns. Children do not simply ‘grow out of’ it. The oldest person I know if that sucks their thumb in private is 62. The most challenging young person I have met, was a ‘double thumb sucker’, yes sucking both thumbs at the same time. In doing so she has created an ‘anterior open bite’, a big gap in between her upper and lower teeth. Other kids develop what people think of as ‘bunny teeth’. These habits often have a way of pushing the lower jaw backwards, which in turn narrows their airway. Again, we see the knock-on effect of non-optimal muscle movement patterns on teeth, jaw and facial development. So, a cute habit can lead to a downward spiral, with many consequences to healthy growth and development.

A guilt zone? A battleground?

Many parents on the other hand realise that it is a pattern that needs to change and embark on remedies discovering that oral habits can be alarmingly difficult to budge. This too is not surprising. Once the brain has adapted to patterns, it simply keeps the behaviour going. This becomes shaky ground for kids who have genuinely decided to give up and failed…leading to a failure cycle and guilt and often a battle ground for parents and kids.

The psychology and behaviour of habit change
The great news is that where a child ‘needs comfort thumb sucking’, there are alternatives and solutions to offer in place of the habit. Carefully guided and supported programs give parents a road map to help their child let go of the habit. In fact, when well done, a win-win situation is created for the children, the families and the health professional guiding you through the program

When is the best time to start? ‘The earlier the better’

For more information about oral habits programs at Well Spoken: admin@wellspoken.com.au

Sharon Moore

Author, speaker, sleep health advocate and speech pathologist

I'm Sharon Moore, author, speaker, sleep health advocate and speech pathologist at Well Spoken Upper Airway & Communication Solutions. I've seen more than 40,000 families over 4 decades of clinical work and I’ve seen first-hand how upper airway issues impact both health and happiness. The ripple effects span across family, school, community and society, and left untreated can last a life-time. I believe that great treatment transforms lives, the earlier the better and that everyone has a right to be happy, healthy and heard. I've worked in medical settings in Australia and London and currently run Well Spoken clinic in Canberra treating patients of all ages referred by medical and dental specialists for disorders of function of the upper airway that impact breathing, eating and communication.

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