The Benefits and Concerns of Thumb Sucking in Infants
For many parents, the argument for whether or not to let their new baby suck his or her thumb after birth is a big one in their household. Yes, it’s perfectly natural and it promotes independence, but it’s also a bad habit that many parents have personally dealt with, and they have no desire to do so with their children.
As each side of this age-old argument has its own pros and cons, it’s possible to find just as many reasons to allow it as there are reasons to stay far, far away. There is no right or wrong answer, but only what feels right to each family and what is right for each baby.
For some newborns, the discovery of their thumb begins within weeks of birth. For others babies, thumb sucking is simply a continuation of a habit they perfected while still in the womb. I have too many friends that have ultrasound pictures of their little ones sucking their thumbs in utero. However, many babies don’t even discover their thumbs for a few months after birth when they start gaining better control over their arms and hands. Each baby is so different.
But regardless whether your little one started thumb sucking in utero, acquired a taste for her thumb soon after birth, or didn’t start sucking her thumb for a while, it’s hard not to worry that your child will be stuck with this new habit through middle school. (What to Expect)
In fact, the number one biggest concern most parents have for their children sucking on a thumb or fingers is that the children will destroy their teeth or jaws and will required a great deal of money, and dental work, to repair something that the parents could have prevented in the first place.
Another big fear of parents is that thumb sucking indicates a psychological disturbance on the part of their kids. I’m not sure where this rumor got started, but it is absolutely not true. On the contrary, the ability of babies to comfort themselves is a huge sign of emotional health, and will be a godsend for you in the months after you bring your little bundle home for the first time. (Ask Dr. Sears)
Don’t start worrying just yet. I want to set your mind at ease. It’s perfectly natural for babies to suck their thumbs and if carefully monitored and handled in just the right way, it can be perfectly healthy as well. In this article, I hope to reveal some truths and some myths about thumb sucking that will make you feel a whole lot better.
Why Do Babies Suck Their Thumbs?
Infants are hard-wired to need sucking as a separate experience from feeding. In some infants this need is more pronounced than in others. The majority of babies suck their thumbs most when they are tired, bored, or in need of comfort. They enjoy sucking their thumbs and find it a form of entertainment that you don’t have to provide them.
This urge usually decreases after the age of 6 months. But many babies continue to suck their thumbs to soothe themselves until at least 1 year of age. In cases where thumb-sucking continues after age 5, it is in response to an emotional disruption in their lives or something else, such as anxiety. (WebMD) Thumb sucking is a natural way for a child that has no other way to comfort themselves, to do so.
Thumb Sucking vs Pacifiers
So, what’s the big argument between thumbs and pacifiers? Is there really a difference and does it matter? It does matter a great deal to some parents. With a pacifier, you have more control over when and where your baby gets to have it, which makes it easier to take it away when it’s time to give it up.
And there’s something else to consider with pacifiers. Many research studies across the United States show that when babies suck on a pacifier while sleeping, it reduces their risk of SIDS.
But there are also advantages to letting your little one suck her thumb. With her thumb always available and within reach, your newborn has a built-in way to calm herself down any time she’s feeling cranky or needs comfort.
Even better, you’ll never have to dive under your baby’s crib in the middle of the night looking for a lost pacifier. Thumbs don’t get lost. And those children that suck their thumbs fall asleep more easily, are able to put themselves back to sleep at night more quickly, and they sleep through the night much earlier than infants who do not suck their thumbs. (Dr. Greene)
Benefits of Thumb Sucking
All babies are born to knowing how to suck their thumbs and have a need to do so, even if they’re not quite able to yet. Sucking is an inborn reflex for babies because it’s how they eat, and how they comfort themselves. Have you ever noticed that even without a bottle, nipple, thumb, or pacifier, your baby will simply sit there and make sucking sounds?
Many times they will simply suck on whatever is within their reach, be it the baby carrier, their blanket, your arm, or even your shirt. It’s a natural and necessary action for babies. It’s not something you can just forget about and hope it goes away. It’s definitely a good thing that your baby has already figured it out.
At birth, a baby will reflexively suck any object placed in its mouth. This is the sucking reflex that naturally allows for successful breastfeeding. But this sucking is great for providing pleasure, comfort, and warmth to your little one regardless of what she is sucking on. Sucking actually mellows the fussy baby, helping to organize the otherwise disorganized bio-rhythms of a newborn.
The act of sucking actually calms your baby down. Even when you’ve just finished feeding your baby, she might still clamor for more sucking action. That doesn’t mean she’s still hungry, but just that she still feels the desire to suckle. Some babies will need and enjoy sucking more than others, and they’ll let you know it very clearly. (What to Expect)
Concerns About Thumb Sucking
Parents from the beginning of time have been concerned for the health and well-being of their children. I don’t think there’s a parent on Earth that doesn’t truly want the best for their children. That’s why it’s so important that we address your concerns when it comes to thumb sucking, and at the top of that list is the harm that may come to your child’s teeth.
From birth through the age of about 6 months old, your little one has no teeth. At this time in her life, there is no chewing but only sucking. Her mouth was designed specifically for this purpose. Babies were given the sucking reflex so that they could successfully breastfeed. So there’s no need for you to worry that sucking her thumb is going to hurt her in any way. In fact, her thumb is no different than sucking on a bottle.
As your child grows into toddlerhood though, sucking her thumb can and will disturb the alignment of her teeth and even the structure of her mouth. This is why it is recommended to parents to wean their little ones off of thumb sucking around 6 months old, before she develops her teeth. If for some reason you decide to continue to allow it, at least wean her off before her permanent front teeth come in, around age six.
Most kids stop thumb sucking on their own by the time they’re around 1 year of age. Those rare few that continue after that will stop on their own around age four, when their preschool classmates make fun of them for being babyish. But you don’t want it to get that far. In fact, the more negativity your child receives from you or others about sucking his thumb, the stronger a habit will develop rather than just being a natural developmental stage that you and your child can move beyond.
This negativity also builds into an oral fixation that will be carried on later in life in an addiction to smoking, alcohol, drugs, or even food. The earlier your baby learns positively that there are other ways to find comfort in addition to the breast, bottle, thumb, or pacifier, the more he will seek alternatives to oral gratification later. You can help that process along while your child is still a toddler by offering other comfort objects (like a beloved stuffed animal) when she reaches for her thumb.
When is It the Right Time to Starting Weaning My Child?
I think every child is different, and you’ll know if you need to give yourself a head start on weaning. Check out your little one’s technique. Does she just rest her thumb passively in her mouth or does she suck her thumb aggressively? For those aggressive suckers you may want to begin finding appropriate alternatives (teddy bear, security blanket, drinking water) around 6 months of age. Otherwise, I would simply make sure you are calling a halt to it by your child’s first birthday.
But you may not have to intervene at all. Children usually give up thumb-sucking when they develop other ways to calm and comfort themselves, usually by age 1. Although, even if you see the thumb sucking stop, or seriously go down by 1 year old, some children still suck their thumb at night or occasionally, to cope with stress, for many years. The sooner you can curb the habit, the healthier your child will be.
If you can identify times and places when your child is particularly likely to suck her thumb, like while riding in the car for example, you might try giving her a substitute, such as a cloth book to flip through. Or if she tends to suck her thumb when she's tired, try altering her schedule to help her get more sleep. Openly pressuring your child to stop can motivate her to suck her thumb even more. (Baby Center)
How Do I Stop the Thumb Sucking When It’s Time?
No fear. I know that the prospect of weaning your child off of anything can haunt even the calmest parent’s nightmares. However, some simple home treatment measures will stop most children from sucking their thumbs without all of the drama. You may wish you knew about them sooner and saved yourself all of the stress. But if your child is older than 3, you will want to start your treatments with a visit to your pediatrician.
At the foundation of many home treatment methods setting rules and providing distractions. It may help to start limiting the times and places that your child is allowed to suck his or her thumb and instead turn to blankets or other items your child associates with that same comfort. You could make it a game and put gloves on your child's hands or wrap her thumbs with an adhesive bandages or tape to help remind your little one not to suck her thumb. My mom used to put my dad’s dirty socks on my hands. Talk about not wanting to put my thumbs in my mouth!
Offering praise and rewards (not food that will reinforce that oral need) for not sucking his thumb may also help your child break the habit. For example, put stickers on a calendar each day that your child doesn't suck his or her thumb. Then after an agreed-upon number of days, have a celebration for your child or take them somewhere special. When it starts working, you’ll want to start extending that time further and further, and then start making the celebration smaller and smaller.
Please don't ever shame or punish your child for sucking his thumb. This will only frustrate you and your child that much more. They need your support and not your shame. Make it something fun and they’ll help you break their own habit.
If home treatment doesn't work and you are concerned or feel frustrated about your child's thumb-sucking, don’t fear talking with your pediatrician. They probably deal with this sort of thing every day. There may be other treatment options, such as behavioral therapy, thumb devices, or devices for the mouth that he can suggest for you and your child. But remember that thumb-sucking usually isn't a problem in children at preschool age or younger. Most children will stop on their own if you give them time and support. (WebMD)
If you are on the line about allowing your little one to suck his or her thumb, I hope this article gave you a little more information to help you make your decision. Never feel pressured to go with any decision you are not comfortable with, but make the one that is right for you and your family.
There are plenty of families that allow thumb sucking but have never owned a pacifier. There are plenty of families that are drowning in pacifiers but don’t allow thumb-sucking. There are families that are really okay with anything baby is comfortable with, and there are families that don’t allow either. Only you will know what you are comfortable with and what you want for your child. Good luck! I hope I helped.
How do you feel about letting your child suck his or her thumb?
© 2013 Victoria Van Ness