COMMON DISORDERS RELATED TO SUCKING HABITS
NEW! Therapist's Edition
Malocclusion and Open Bite
Thumbsucking habits affect the natural positions of the tongue,
lips, teeth, and jaw.  A thumb or finger inside the mouth misplaces
these structures by taking up the space where the tongue, lips,
and teeth are normally located. If this habit continues over a
period of time, it can lead to an open bite or other malocclusion.  
This, in turn, can lead to chewing, eating, and swallowing issues
at meal times, causing misunderstandings and accusations that
have long term negative consequences.
Chronic Mouth-Breathing
The nose has protective barriers to filter and “air condition” the air
we breathe. These include cilia (tiny hairs), turbinates (twisting
passageways), and the mucus membrane.    When your child
breathes through his mouth instead of his nose, the air is
transported to the lungs without the benefit of these protective
barriers. This increases the likelihood of upper airway infections,
middle ear infections, colds and more.  Chronic mouth breathing
may also alter normal facial growth.  Because the jaw is held in an
open posture, dental development is disrupted. Teeth in the upper
jaw are meant to merge with the matching teeth in the lower jaw,
fitting together like a puzzle.  The intrusion of the thumb prevents
this from happening. This, in turn, leads to malocclusion problems
that orthodontic treatment alone might not be able to correct.  
Another symptom related to altered facial growth may be a lack of
development of the walls of the nasal cavity.  As your child pushes
up on the roof of the mouth, the floor of the nasal chamber is also
being pushed upward and reshaped into a smaller, narrower
opening.  This can dramatically affect the child’s breathing capacity.
Deformed Hard Palate
High, narrow palates are often associated with sucking habits.  The
frequency, intensity and duration of a sucking habit are factors that
affect the location and type of damage that can occur to the teeth,
palate, lips, and mandible (jaw).   Sometimes the actual bone
structure is altered if a child sucks
often, uses excessive force or
continues the habit for long periods of time. As the thumb or any
other object presses against the developing bones of the child’s
palate, these bones may be molded into an unnatural “V” shape,
rather than the ideal “U” shape.  
Speech Development
Since clear, precise speech is dependent upon the ability of the
tongue, jaw, and lips to move rapidly from place to place within the
mouth, it is important that they have a convenient resting place
(“home base”).  When a thumb, finger, pacifier or other object is
inserted into the mouth, it displaces the natural resting positions
of the tongue, jaw, and lips.  Even when the thumb is removed, the
structures remain in the incorrect position, creating yet another  
undesirable habit.  Since the tongue has now learned the “wrong”
place to rest, that “wrong” place is where many speech sounds
are produced, leading to such speech problems as lisping,
articulation disorders, certain voice disorders,  and overall
mumbling and imprecise speech.   
    Studies have found that interaction in class as well as
    participation is affected and limited by sucking behaviors.  
    Some children enter an almost trance-like state while sucking
    their thumbs or fingers.  In such a state, they are not able to
    concentrate on subject matter being presented. Another study
    found that thumb suckers in first grade were considered less
    attractive, less happy, and less likable.  And the other children
    were less likely to choose a thumb sucker for a friend.  (Friman
    and Schmitt, Thumb Sucking: Pediatricians Guidelines.  Clinical
    Pediatrics 1989) When this is how a first grader is perceived, it
    is hard to imagine the damage it can do to the self-esteem of
    an 8 or 10 year old….or an adult who never eliminated the
    problem!  
Below are a few of the many stories that highlight the advantages of Unplugging The
Thumb… some of which even came as a complete surprise to me! These are not research
studies  but rather the reports of parents who shared their medical histories and other
information in order to show others the benefits eliminating this habit.

•        Nutritional deficiencies and extreme pickiness- Brett, age 9 years, was diagnosed with
anorexia.  They called me for chewing and swallowing consultation because a nutritionist he
had been seeing was not making any headway.  I discovered that Brett had such a strong
thumb sucking habit that his parents had given up on trying to eliminate it.  The years of
thumb sucking had caused a severe open bite malocclusion and chewing was extremely
difficult for him.  When he did eat, it was only selected foods and very small amounts.  When I
examined him, I found that he was unable to chew his food effectively and ended up
swallowing large pieces of food as well as a lot of air.  This caused him stomach distress.  It
was so difficult for Brett to maneuver many foods such as meats that he ended up avoiding
much of the chewing process.  Although not consciously aware of it, he began to eat less and
less over time, eventually putting himself at risk.  Our first target was to implement
Unplugging The Thumb.  He stopped on the first day and completed the program perfectly.  
We then were in a good position to provide therapy to help him improve his tongue, jaw, and
lips so that chewing and swallowing could be achieved more easily.  Orthodontic treatment
was provided and the combination of factors led to a successful ending to his difficulties.  

•        Germs – Joey, four years old, was known as a little terror.  Not too many kids have
been kicked out of two preschools by the age of four!   I was called in to evaluate and treat
him in his home.  He was a smiling, sweet boy with a devilish look about him and I
immediately liked him a lot.  After some probing, I learned that he had frequently missed
going to school due to colds, ear infections, and other respiratory infections.  He was an
ardent thumb sucker as well as an active little boy.  Because I treated him in his home, I took
the opportunity to observe him playing, interacting with his cat and dog, and even playing
outdoors.  What I saw was Joey moving from thumb inside the mouth to picking up a dirty
rubber ball and throwing it to the dog.  Then he sat in his sandbox for awhile, thumb in
mouth….a thumb covered with germs galore by then!  This was repeated over and over
throughout his day.....touching “germy” items, thumb inside mouth, touching and sucking
thumb.  I provided Unplugging The Thumb immediately since his speech problems were
directly related to his sucking habit and subsequent malpositioned tongue and jaw.   I never
expected the extreme changes that occurred.  Joey’s behavior improved tremendously and
his self-esteem soared from having conquered his sucking habit.  He was enrolled in a new
preschool and functioned well.  He responded well to speech therapy and progressed
quickly.  But it was approximately 6 months later that his parents and I realized that he had not
had any respiratory infections, ear infections or colds.  In short, if we remind ourselves that a
thumb or finger is often attached to a little girl or boy who forgets to wash after potty, plays with
dirty outdoor toys, crawls around on floors, etc. , then it is no surprise to us that eliminating
the sucking habit will be very beneficial.

•        Headaches –  Michelle was a five-year-old thumb sucker whose father brought her to
my clinic to eliminate a sucking habit and a lisp.  While I was taking the medical history, he
said that Michelle had been diagnosed as having migraine headaches. The headaches
occurred almost daily, and they were accompanied by bouts of throwing up. She had seen
several medical professionals, but no one could find any reason for her headaches. I started
her on Unplugging The Thumb program.  She phoned me the next day to report that she had
quit sucking her thumb the first day.  This continued for 5 more days and then she came in for
her scheduled appointment. Her father reported that the migraines had completely stopped
and that she was symptom free.  He said there had been no other changes in her life, only
the cessation of her sucking habit.  He stated that there was no doubt in his mind that
stopping the sucking habit had led to relief from the migraines.

Adult sufferers - Last, I would like to share stories of adults who have emailed or phoned
me, asking for help to eliminate sucking habits.  Since they usually lived far from me, and
since they were too old to benefit from Unplugging The Thumb, I someone had helped them
when they were younger, before the habit became so entrenched that it invaded every aspect
of their lives.   
•        Mandy is a high school teacher who was in her first year of teaching when she contacted
me.  She found it difficult to get through an entire class without sucking her thumb.  She
became a clock watcher, waiting for each class to end so she could go hide somewhere
“safe” and suck on her thumb.  She said she had no other addictive tendencies and that
thumb sucking was her only bad habit.  It interfered with her ability to date and mingle
socially.  No one had tried to help her when she was a child and now she was feeling very
hopeless about ever being able to stop.   
•        Katie was a 16 year old who had recently tried to stop sucking her thumb at the
encouragement of her youth counselor, who was a good friend of the family.  The counselor
contacted me first because she was very concerned about Katie.  She said that Katie’s
behavior had changed, she was unhappy, not sleeping  well, and more.  I told her to have
Katie contact me directly, which she did.  Being a young lady now, Katie had decided that she
must stop her sucking habit if she was going to “fit in” socially and lead a normal life.  She did
not know where to seek guidance and had spent the last two weeks trying to stop “cold
turkey” on her own.  She ended up staying awake nearly every night, so as to avoid sucking
her thumb while asleep.  She had done some research online and realized that she had an
abnormal tongue resting posture from the sucking habit.  Katie also worried about that bit of
new information.  In all other ways, she was a model child who had never had any other bad
habits.  Her mother also ended up writing to me, begging me to help her if I could.  I was able
to refer her to a colleague who lived near her and she was able to finally combat her
problem.  They all agreed that this could have been avoided if the adults in her life had known
years ago that there was a kind method to eliminate her habit.  
•        Jessica contacted me because the crevice at the base of her thumb began to peel and
was very sore.   Also, she said her teeth were “getting worse” and she was becoming very
worried.  She was a college graduate in her twenties and had a good job at a bank.  She
admitted that she sucked her thumb around her friends, her family, and her boyfriend in spite
of a lot of negative attention from them.  She said she’d been allowed to suck her thumb
wherever and whenever she wanted during her childhood, but as an adult her family became
intolerant.  Now that she was experiencing pain and dental problems, she was very scared
and wanted help.  I am not sure about the ending of this story.  I sent a suggested plan of
action to Jessica, but never heard back.  With some adults, the habit has been ongoing for so
many years and has become so entrenched that perhaps it cannot be eliminated.   
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