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Thumb-Sucking: What You Need to Know

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All babies are born with the natural reflexes of sucking. These reflexes are essential as they are what help a baby feed.

Thumb sucking is also a natural habit for babies and children, often starting even before birth. It is used for self-soothing purposes and helps your baby feel more secure.

In most cases, babies and toddlers stop sucking their thumbs all on their own between the ages of 2 to 4. It is considered normal behavior until the age of 4. However, if it continues after, thumb sucking might cause problems in children whose adult teeth are coming through.

As a new parent, it is important to know all about thumb sucking and when it stops being typical behavior and starts being a matter of concern.

Why do babies suck their thumbs?

Babies have natural rooting and sucking reflexes, which causes them to put their thumbs or fingers into their mouths.

Thumb sucking helps babies

  • feel secure
  • soothe themselves
  • go to sleep easier

Thumb sucking is a way for babies and infants to comfort themselves. Usually, after six months of age, the urge for thumb-sucking decreases. However, if your baby has learned to comfort themselves by sucking their thumb, this behavior may continue long past that time frame.

ALSO READ: Baby Hiccups: Causes, Treatment, and When to Be Concerned

How long does thumb-sucking usually last?

According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, thumb-sucking is common among infants and young children. It was formerly classified as a habit disturbance when persisting beyond 3 or 4 years. It is often explained as a basic sucking impulse from which a child derives pleasure, comfort, and relaxation.

Typically, many children stop sucking their thumbs on their own, often by age 6 or 7 months or between the ages of 2 and 4.

Thirty percent of children in preschool suck their thumbs, which is still considered age appropriate. Children tend to naturally wean themselves off sucking their thumb at around 3 years of age. Still, if the habit continues past the age of four, the long-term dental consequences could surface, and if thumb sucking continues past the age of five, it could indicate emotional or other problems.

However, every child is different. A child who gave up the habit of thumb-sucking might return to this habit in times of stress. So if you have concerns about your child’s habits, you should consider talking to a pediatrician and a psychologist. 

What are the side effects of thumb-sucking?

Thumb sucking, a natural reflex of infants and kids, provides a sense of protection when your child is worried or stressed. This habit gives the worried or stressed child a soothing experience.

Children also tend to suck their thumbs when they feel happy. These are all normal up to the age of 4, usually.

However, if this habit continues for a long time, past age 4, it might negatively affect your child’s teeth alignment and jaw development.

The effects of thumb-sucking vary based on

  • your child’s development
  • how often they suck their thumb
  • the angle at which they suck their thumb
  • how hard they suck their thumb

ALSO READ: Umbilical Cord Care: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Some of the problems that may arise from thumb-sucking include:

Misaligned teeth

Thumb sucking might have a negative effect on the alignment of your child’s teeth.

The most serious permanent side effects of thumb sucking are the imperfect positioning of the teeth when the jaws are closed. This is also referred to as an overbite or open bite.

Overbite: This occurs when the upper front teeth are directed outward, and the top teeth cover the bottom teeth when your child’s mouth is closed rather than the top and bottom teeth touching.

An overbite can affect the shape of the face and smile. In some cases, the child might need orthodontic treatment to correct the misalignment.

Open bite: This occurs when the top and bottom teeth are directed outward. With this form of misalignment, the top and bottom front teeth don’t touch even when your child’s mouth is completely closed.

Speech impediments

Thumb sucking affects the proper development of the teeth, jaw, and palate. It can change how your child eats and speaks.

Social impact

Thumb sucking can have an impact on your child socially.

If your child is over four years old and still sucks their thumb, you may need support from a professional. A pediatrician, a dentist, and a psychologist might collaborate on helping your child overcome the habit and its effects.

ALSO READ: Key Signs of Speech and Language Delays in Your Child

When should I intervene?

Thumb sucking isn’t usually a concern until a child’s permanent teeth appear.

After the permanent teeth come in, thumb sucking might begin to affect the roof of the mouth (palate) or how the teeth line up.

The risk of dental problems is related to

  • how often
  • how long and
  • how intensely your child sucks on their thumb.

The American Dental Association (ADA) confirms that most children stop thumb sucking on their own between the ages of 2 and 4.

Even after age 4, doctors don’t recommend that parents aggressively intervene and attempt to stop the habit. This is because placing too much pressure on your child can have the opposite effect.

How can I encourage my child to stop sucking their thumb?

Most parents feel anxious to help their children stop sucking their thumbs in order to prevent future dental problems.

While the concern is normal, it is important to remember that too much intervention may produce the opposite result. Your child may, in fact, get to cling to thumb-sucking more.

Positive reinforcement is the best way to help your child stop sucking their thumb. You can also use support, encouragement, and reminders.

It is important to remember that most children will stop thumb-sucking, on their own, without adult intervention.

ALSO READ: What Is Positive Parenting?

To encourage your child to give up the habit of thumb-sucking, you might try some of the following gentle methods:

  • Identify what triggers thumb sucking: If stress or fear causes your child to put their thumb in their mouth, help them reduce this fear in other ways, such as with a hug or comforting words.
  • Replace the habit: Most children suck their thumb without consciously thinking about it. Help your child stop by coming up with a replacement habit to keep their hands busy. This could include making a fist or holding a soft toy they can squeeze.
  • Offer rewards: Set goals with your child and offer rewards when they avoid thumb-sucking for a while. Praise your child for trying, and consider incorporating sticker charts, small treats, or fun surprises to help the process along.
  • Provide reminders: When you notice your child sucking their thumb, gently redirect them. Always avoid harsh words or punishments.

Along the journey of encouraging your child to stop thumb-sucking, you should be careful to not engage in the following:

  • Avoid confrontation: Don’t tell your child: “You cannot suck your thumb anymore.”
  • Don’t prohibit it: Don’t prohibit your child if they try to suck their thumb, particularly after a stressful event e.g. being hurt or injured. They need to be in their comfort zone, and you’re only traumatizing them by placing heavy restrictions on certain behaviors.
  • Avoid bitter treatments and ointments: Don’t use bitter nasty-tasting solutions marketed to stop thumb-sucking.
  • Don’t use hand coverings: Don’t try to cover your child’s hand with a glove or mitten as a quick fix to thumb-sucking. This might frustrate your baby and cause more anxiety.

Always remember that thumb-sucking is a habit. So you need to be patient and positive while helping your child. Encourage your child to stop themselves, and don’t push them to do so in negative ways. This will probably only worsen the habit.

Talk to your pediatrician or dentist if your child continues to suck their thumb after they start school.


References: mayoclinic.com, healthychildren.org, webmd.com, verywellfamily.com

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