teddy_hugThe sucking of fingers is only one of a group of behaviors we observe in small children. These are called tensional outlets. They are thumb or finger sucking, chewing on clothing or hair, nose picking, and holding the genitals. These are very common behaviors during this period of childhood. They help a child reduce the internal tension, which results from anxiety and fear. Each child has his or her own personal tensional outlet, which may have become associated with stress reduction during infancy or toddlerhood.

All of these are difficult habits to change in a small child, although parents spend a great deal of time trying. They spend even more time listening to advice from well -meaning friends, relatives and even strangers, who warn of the dangers of these habits aren’t corrected. The simply truth is these tensional outlets are not harmful and are obviously very important to these small children who are experiencing some form of stress. They usually are outgrown by school time.

Here are some common questions from parents:

Does finger sucking cause orthodontic problems?

Most dentists today feel that serious malocclusion occurs because of genetic factors. There may be a moderate effect caused by finger sucking that extends into the fifth or sixth year, but these can be reversed by orthodontics.

Should I do something to help my child stop?

If a child is motivated or asks for help, you can provide encouragement. However, you should never force a child to give up their tensional outlet.

If your child is motivated, a positive reward system may be useful. In regards to finger sucking, the motivated child over age 7 can be fitted by an orthodontist with a special mouthpiece which has a bridge that hits the child’s fingers as it goes onto the mouth. This provides a gentle reminder. It is not recommended to put bad tasting substances on the fingers, to restrain them, or to use punishment to curb these behaviors.

Are there any health risks?
Most of these habits are completely harmless, but there can be some complications. Fingers and nail beds can sometimes become infected. Although it is rare, swallowing hair that is chewed on can accumulate in a child’s stomach. And picking of noses can cause nosebleeds.

When will they grow out of it?

Thumb or finger sucking, and nail biting will last the longest. It will vary based on the child, but most children give up finger sucking by age 8 or 9. Nail biting, however, can go on for a life time, but can be helped. Ask your pediatrician for suggestions when your child is older and motivated.