We "oooh" and "awww" when we see a little baby find his/her thumb and begin to suck it. There is something sweet about a little one finding comfort in thumb-sucking. Approximately one-third to one-half of preschoolers sucks their thumbs. Children usually outgrow this habit by kindergarten, often with parental encouragement,(only about six percent of children persist in thumb-sucking after age seven), but when thumb-sucking persists into grade school years or even beyond, it can cause long-term problems.
Dental problems are the most obvious results of long-term thumb-sucking. This habit can cause malocclusion, which means the child's teeth do not align properly. Upper teeth most commonly move outwards while lower teeth move inwards. Improperly aligned teeth often result in an overbite and require costly orthodontic treatment in adolescence.
Because a child under the age of eight has a jawbone that is soft and blood-rich thumb-sucking can actually reshape it. The roof of the mouth, also malleable in young years, can become misshapen.
When a child's jawbone, roof of his/her mouth, and teeth become misaligned, speech difficulties may arise. The child may have difficulty pronouncing certain sounds correctly. Additionally, tongue-thrusting may be impaired and thus the tongue will not be placed correctly for proper speech. These problems require speech therapy which may be both lengthy and costly.
Thumb-sucking can also result in damage to a child's thumb. Repetitive sucking causes the thumb to become swollen and calloused. Infections may arise, as germs are easily transmitted from whatever surface the child has touched.
Beyond the predictable medical/dental effects of thumb-sucking, social difficulties are possible for older children who continue in this habit. They may be teased by peers, leading to embarrassment and ostracism. Friendships may be affected as peers don't want to be made fun of for associating with the thumb-sucker. Low self-worth may develop.
Thumb-sucking may also result in difficulty resolving emotional needs in an age-appropriate fashion. The habit is often a strategy to cope with feelings of insecurity or loneliness and is ill-suited to mature problem-solving. It is often used to help a child put himself to sleep, and may become a crutch that persists into later years. Children may need to re-learn how to soothe themselves when anxious, and how to create a healthier sleep protocol.
The thumb-sucking that we tend to see as cute and sweet in a baby can cause serious and expensive problems if not stopped by the age of four.
Lyndsi Decker is a freelance writer that is currently promoting dental practice marketing such as dental direct mail. She often blogs about family and parenting issues. She spends her free time traveling with her husband and two kids.