The habit could become a problem if it persists beyond age 5

The worried parents of a 17-year-old approached their family doctor with the complaint that their teenaged son slept with his thumb in his mouth.

The doctor, noticing that the boy’s teeth were protruding, referred them to a dentist. The boy got over his habit. But the dentist took the matter further. He did a random survey of children with a similar problem.

From the survey of 750 children, the dentist arrived at an inference that early detection of thumb sucking will solve the problem before it gets out of control. The data indicated that upbringing had a bearing on the problem, including food habits, sleep hours, habituation to snacks, brushing the teeth, bathing pattern and so on.

Explaining the successful treatment given to the 17-year-old boy, dentist J. Kanna Peruman said that fixing a “habit breaking appliance” inside the mouth discouraged thumb sucking. The habit is believed to be common in villages. It results in weight loss as food intake dips among the affected children.

The dentist said the case of the 17-year-old was “rare” as the habit of thumb sucking was normally seen up to the age of 5. It becomes a problem if it persists beyond that age. It is for the parents to be alert and ensure that kids stopped thumb sucking at the earliest.

The chances of throat infection are high among children who suck their thumbs. They tend to get exposed to antibiotics early on. Some children take to thumb sucking when they are in a state of “euphoria,” but this could lead to loss of appetite and other complications, said Anusha, a dentist.

Some of the parents, who recounted the problems they had with their children, said that they ignored the thumb sucking habit in the kids. “Later, when the kids turned adamant we were a bit worried. It affected their behaviour. They refused to obey. That’s when we realised the problem,” recalls a parent.

Applying castor/neem oil on the thumbs worked sometimes, but parents said the kids got rid of the oil cleverly by rubbing their thumbs on their clothes. Similarly, efforts to cover the hand with gloves too did not last as they removed them, parents pointed out.

Shocking but true, in rural pockets some parents even resort to sticking hot needles into their kids’ thumbs to stop the habit, Dr. Peruman said. This could lead to other complications which may pose serious problems to the child, he warned.

Paediatricians at the Government Rajaji Hospital said that continuous thumb sucking among children may lead to gastro complaints. Children resort to thumb sucking when they are hungry.

What is all the more worrisome is that sustained thumb sucking could restrict lower jaw growth. At a later stage, the parents may have to approach doctors for facial correction. In case of a girl child, the effects may be all the more complicated. Surgical procedures are costly and unaffordable to many.

Teeth and jaw correction could be avoided in 90 per cent of the cases, if intervention occurred at the right time by giving kids proper counselling. The simplest of all would be to strike early and break the habit of thumb sucking even before a child started going to school, the doctors said. However, some senior doctors and family elders have a different view. Thumb sucking is normal and kids eventually give it up.

Pushpalatha, a teacher in a private school with a student strength of 5000, said, “I have seen many children in kindergarten sucking their thumbs and, as they moved to the First Standard or to the next class, they had withdrawn from the habit on their own.”

Echoing this view, Muthammal of LIC Colony, who has seven grandchildren, said children are prone to thumb sucking, but overcome it at the appropriate age.

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