Does your child suck his finger or thumb? Did you suck your thumb as a child? I did for many (ahem, many) years. Until recently I was under the impression that thumb or finger sucking is associated with oral gratification or self-comfort.
But apparently I was very wrong…or at least in part.
According to Dr. Leon Treger, a Holistic Dentist, studies show that thumb sucking is actually a child’s way of trying to breathe easier. Thus thumb sucking “is the body’s innate way to establish an airway.”
Treger even went a step further to explain how sucking your thumb is also linked to allergies and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Whoa…If we only knew about this years ago!
OK now back to the article…
Thumb sucking, allergies, and adenoids
If you suffer with allergies, you probably know it involves inflammation of the airways and sinuses. Allergies are also intimately associated with inflamed adenoids and enlarged tonsils, two conditions often seen in children.
Some children who experience breathing problems do so because they have allergies that have not been identified, and their adenoids and/or tonsils become enlarged, which compromises their ability to breathe well. These breathing difficulties are prompting them to suck their thumbs at night in an attempt to breathe better.
Where does ADHD fit in?
I’m glad you asked. Researchers have also found a relationship between breathing problems at night (similar to sleep apnea), thumb sucking, enlarged adenoids or tonsillitis, and attention deficit, hyperactivity, and symptoms of impulsivity.
James E. Metz, DDS, has noted that “we have significant evidence that sleep-related breathing disorders [obstructive sleep apnea] are associated with cognitive and behavioral impairment in children (which improve after tonsillectomy).” He asks the question: what if we ignore these sleep problems in kids and they grow up with “these ‘cognitive and behavioral impairments’ becoming firmly rooted?” We then have individuals with ADHD.
In one example of several studies on the topic, 63 children (ages 4-13) suffering with obstructive symptoms associated with enlarged adenoids or tonsillitis plus enlarged adenoids underwent adenoidectomy (removal of adenoids) or adenotonsillectomy (removal of adenoids and tonsils). The goal of the study was to identify and compare the severity of attention deficit, hyperactivity, and impulsivity symptoms in these children before and after the surgeries.
Based on data collected before the procedures were performed, the researchers noted a significant improvement in the children’s attention deficit, hyperactivity, and impulsivity symptoms.
In a later study, the investigators set out to evaluate the impact of an adenotonsillectomy on ADHD symptoms and sleep disordered breathing on 53 children (ages 3-12). Evaluations of the children at three and six months post surgery revealed a significant decrease in the severity of ADHD symptoms (including cognitive disorders, inattention, hyperactivity, oppositional behavior) at both testing times, with more significant decreases at the six-month analysis.
What parents can do
Dr. Treger suggest having your children checked for sensitivities and/or allergies, and getting their adenoids and tonsils examined as well. If the sensitivities/allergies are dealt with, children will be able to breathe better and their tonsils and adenoids can reduce in size. Some children may need to have their adenoids and/or tonsils removed.
Read why US born kids have more allergies than immigrants
Dr. Treger also pointed out that when a child (or adult) has difficulty breathing, he or she might be sucking in air through their nose, which causes compression of the upper jaw and contributes to development of an overbite. Children with an overbite have a more difficult time breathing because their bottom jaw is pushed back when it needs to be pushed more forward.
All children can be taught a simple tongue exercise that pushes the lower jaw forward and the tongue up. Ask your child to make a loud “tic toc” sound. This activity pushes the tongue up to the palate. A fun way to do “tic toc” is to say the alphabet one letter at a time, repeating “tic toc” after each letter.
Childcare experts tell parents that it’s harmful for their children to practice thumb sucking for a prolonged period of time (past age 7 years) because it can result in significant dental problems (I guess I was an anomaly because I sucked my thumb well into my teens and never needed braces!). However, paying attention to thumb sucking early on could help with breathing problems and also alleviate or perhaps even avoid ADHD.
Watch my full interview with Dr. Treger here.
Amiri S et al. Effect of adenotonsillectomy on ADHD symptoms of children with adenotonsillar hypertrophy and sleep disordered breathing. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolarynogology 2015 Aug; 79(8): 1213-17
Avral M et al. Evaluation of hyperactivity, attention deficit, and impulsivity before and after adenoidectomy/adenotonsillectomy surgery. Journal of Craniofacial Surgery 2013 May; 24(3): 731-34
Metz JE. The sleep apnea and ADHD connection: our children bear the scars
Sleep apnea in infants/toddlers