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Thumb Sucking and Tongue Thrust: What Parents Should Know

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Thumb sucking and tongue thrust typically begin in infancy. Tongue thrusting is a reflex that helps infants draw nourishment from the breast or bottle. Children can thumb suck to relieve stress, anxiety, or boredom. While normal for infants, parents should know that prolonged thumb sucking and tongue thrusting may require interventions to prevent dental deformation and improper muscle development in the mouth and jaw. So it’s best for parents to stop their children from thumb sucking sooner rather than later.

What Is Tongue Thrust?

While all parents know that babies will suck their thumbs, they may not be aware of the associated issue of tongue thrust. Tongue thrusting is a reflexive action that helps babies swallow. It occurs when the tongue pushes against the nipple, spoon, or food in the mouth. This reflex helps babies extract breast milk or nutrition from a bottle and keeps them from choking if they get too much in their mouths and struggle to swallow it.

But if tongue thrusting continues into toddlerhood and beyond, it can cause tooth misalignment, poor speech development, such as lisping, and gaps between the teeth. Additionally, tongue thrust can lead to an increased risk of developing sleep apnea. Treatment for tongue thrust beyond infancy usually involves a combination of positive reinforcement, habit reversal training, and speech therapy.

How Thumb Sucking and Tongue Thrust Are Related

Thumb sucking is also a natural reflexive action that babies use to calm themselves. In fact, thumb sucking releases soothing neurotransmitters in the brain, providing a feeling of calm. Because it mimics the action of nursing, tongue thrust often comes with thumb sucking. Therefore, thumb sucking can cause malocclusion and speech articulation issues if unabated. It can also lead to skin irritation around the thumb or on the hand due to constant contact with saliva.

While both thumb sucking and tongue thrust are normal habits during infancy, they can cause problems if continued beyond infancy. In addition to speech issues and misalignment of the teeth, they can cause damage to the roof of the mouth, improper swallowing, and weak muscle development in the jaw. All these ailments together are orofacial myofunctional disorders, or OMDs.

Thumb sucking usually dissipates in toddlerhood and stops on its own. However, if the habit persists into preschool or beyond, it can lead to OMD. Fortunately, there are a few steps that parents can take to help their children break these habits. The first step is to recognize the signs.

What Are the Signs of Tongue Thrust?

Children who have tongue thrust often open their mouths wide when speaking and push out their tongues to make certain sounds. Therefore, they may struggle to produce clear speech, particularly when forming “th” sounds. If your child lisps or has a misaligned bite, it could be indicative of tongue thrust.

If you notice any of these signs, it’s best to take your child to a pediatric dentist, orthodontist, or speech pathologist for a professional assessment.

How Can I Help My Child Stop Tongue Thrusting?

The most effective way to help your child stop tongue thrusting is by working with a professional such as a dentist, orthodontist, or speech pathologist. They will be able to identify the underlying cause, including thumb sucking, and recommend a treatment plan tailored to your child’s needs.

It’s important for parents to be supportive and encouraging during this process. Positive reinforcement can help motivate children to stop their habits and show them that you’re there for them.

With early intervention and parental support, children can effectively break their thumb-sucking or tongue-thrusting habits and prevent long-term oral health problems. Make sure to educate yourself on the signs, symptoms, and treatments of thumb sucking so that you can help your child break these habits.

Positive Reinforcement

Offer positive reinforcements like stickers, extra play time, or special treats as incentives for good behavior when your child goes an entire day without engaging in the habit. If these methods don’t work, parents may need to seek professional help.

Also, ensure you set clear boundaries around thumb sucking, such as not allowing it during certain times of the day or in particular locations. It’s important to be consistent in enforcing these boundaries.

Anti-Thumb-Sucking Devices

Devices like the AeroThumb thumb-sucking glove can also be helpful tools in breaking thumb- or tongue-sucking habits. The thumb-shaped device fits over the child’s thumb and can eliminate the pleasurable sensation of thumb sucking. It’s non-invasive, comfortable, and effective, making it a great option for many parents to try with their children.

Seek Help

Thumb sucking and tongue thrusting are natural habits that can be difficult to break without the right approach or support. It’s important for parents to understand why their children are engaging in these behaviors and what they can do to help them stop. Positive reinforcement and rewards can work, but if the cause for thumb sucking is psychological, you may need additional help. If your child suffers from extreme anxiety or grief from a recent loss, seeking therapeutic help from a pediatric clinical psychologist may be an effective approach.

Dealing with the underlying impulse that leads to thumb sucking can go a long way toward breaking the habit.

Let Them Learn on Their Own

Sometimes, kids don’t realize until they reach kindergarten that thumb sucking isn’t normal for a child their age. They realize on their own that “big kids don’t suck their thumbs.” The strong desire to fit in, make friends, and show peers and parents that they’re big kids can motivate children to break the thumb sucking habit.

If dental deformations or swallowing issues have already occurred because of prolonged thumb sucking or tongue thrusting, don’t despair. Dentists, orthodontists, and speech pathologists can all help correct the damage.

The best solution to tongue thrusting is to not allow it to occur past infancy. Parents should work on weaning their children from the thumb sucking habit before permanent teeth begin to emerge. Parents who know about thumb sucking and tongue thrusting and what to do about them can be proactive in looking for symptoms and addressing them as soon as they occur.

Thumb Sucking and Tongue Thrust: What Parents Should Know