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Thumb or finger sucking is common in infants through the first year of their lives. A child usually turns to his thumb when he is tired, upset or bored.
A child younger than five years should not be pressured to stop thumb sucking. While majority of children give up such habits on their own before they enter school, about 15 percent of children continue thumb sucking past their fifth birthday. This is an age when teasing often starts, causing difficulties for children.
Apart from this, thumb sucking can also lead to dental problems. A child who is still sucking his thumb by age five, when permanent teeth start coming in, may develop an abnormal bite. In addition, prolonged thumb sucking can cause minor physical problems, such as chapped lips or cracked skin, calluses, or fingernail infections.
The effects of thumb sucking are usually reversible until the age of seven because children still have their deciduous (baby) teeth. If thumb sucking continues beyond that age, when the second teeth are erupting, permanent dental problems can occur.
There are various things you can do to help your child stop thumb sucking:
1. Reward your child and offer encouragement - For example, with a hug or praise to reinforce their decision to stop the habit.
2. Limit nagging - If children feel they are being nagged they will become defensive.
3. Mark their progress on a calendar - For example, place a star or a tick for each period (such as a day or week) that the child does not suck thumb or finger. Provide a special outing or a toy if the child gets through the period successfully.
4. Encourage bonding - For example, with a special toy.
5. Reminders - Give the child a mitten to wear as a reminder not to suck, or place unpleasant tasting nail paint (available from chemists) on the fingers or thumb. Placing a band aid over the thumb at bedtime is another reminder.
6. Offer distractions - While a child is watching tv, have toys available for children to play with. Sit with the child during this time and give a cuddle to help them not to suck. In the car, have toys available to keep children occupied.