Parenting no doubt is a tricky and testing phase of life. But it can be made easier if there is someone to address your dilemmas. Dr Ibrahim Yousuf, a Karachi-based pediatrician will write on parenting issues every month exclusively for SNI readers. If you are facing problems with childcare send in your queries right away at: email@example.com or post on our facebook page: www.facebook.com/shifa.news.mag
Dear Dr Ibrahim,
My daughter is four years old and goes to school. She has a habit of sucking her two middle fingers. We have tried every tactic from scolding her each time to applying red chili powder on her fingers to rid her of the habit but nothing has worked. Is there any possible way to help her?
Thumb sucking is quite different in babies from what it indicates in older children. Many babies suck their thumb, fingers or fists even before they are born. However, after birth, babies who nurse more tend to suck their thumb less because they get enough sucking. Almost all babies do from the time they begin to teethe (usually around three to four months). By the time a baby is six months old, thumb or finger sucking is turning into something different. Like in your daughter’s case, it is a comforter she needs at special times. She sucks when she is tired, bored or frustrated or to put herself to sleep. A one and half year old baby may remain frustrated if the mother is constantly trying to stop him from doing things that fascinate him. Sometimes in an older child, thumb sucking is simply a habit, a pattern of behavior that repeats for no good reason. The child wants to stop but his fingers seem to end up in his mouth. He is not really aware that he is doing it.
The physical problems caused by thumb sucking are mild, thickened skin on the thumb or finger which goes away on its own. It is true that thumb sucking often pushes the upper front baby teeth forward and lower teeth back. But dentist say that this tilting of the baby teeth has little chance that it will displace the permanent teeth as in majority cases the child stops thumb sucking by the age of six. NOTHING WORKS EXCEPT THE AGE.
Using splints, gloves or bad tasting stuff on thumb or finger will not help stop the habit in older children or small babies. These approaches may even prolong the habit by creating a power struggle between the determined sucker and his parents. Just try to stop thinking about it. If you keep on worrying, the child will feel the tension and react against it. However, if your child is on bottle feed choose a nipple with smaller hole so that the baby gets to do a lot of sucking during feeding. Also, try to divert the child’s attention to something interesting like play when he puts his thumb or fingers in the mouth.
Instead of worrying, parents should realize that thumb sucking goes away with time. In majority cases it is over before the adult teeth appear. It does not go away steadily though. It decreases rapidly for a while and then comes back partway during illness or when the child has a difficult adjustment to make. The child then usually quits between three to six years of age. Some dentists use metal wires that attach to upper teeth to make thumb sucking not only unpleasant but practically impossible. This measure should be a last resort. Not only is it expensive but it takes all control away from the child at an age when it is important for children to feel that they can be in control of their bodies.
The writer is a pediatrician in Karachi and a freelance contributor