Thumb sucking in children

Has your little one developed a thumb-sucking habit? If yes, there’s no need to worry. It’s quite normal for newborns to develop this behaviour. The good news is that till the time your baby turns five years old, there isn’t any risk associated with thumb-sucking. It’s only after that, you might want to start helping your child to stop him from sucking his thumb.

Read on to learn more about why babies and toddlers suck their thumbs, when it turns into a habit, followed by how to stop the thumb-sucking habit.

Why Do Babies and Children Suck Their Thumbs?

Typically, babies are born with natural rooting and sucking reflexes. This is why you might notice that your little one voluntarily puts his thumb or fingers in his mouth and sucks on it. On the other hand, thumb-sucking has a calming and soothing effect for babies and toddlers. It makes the babies feel more secure and comforted. This is one of the major reasons why your little one may develop the thumb-sucking habit when he needs a little soothing particularly before going to sleep. You don’t need to worry much as it’s quite normal and common for babies to suck their thumbs.

When Do Babies Start Sucking Their Thumb and When Do They Stop?

Thumb-sucking often starts at a very young age. Some babies begin sucking their thumbs and fingers in the womb! And, some newborn babies start sucking their thumbs as soon as they have been born. There are even babies who won’t go on to suck their thumbs.

Once your little one starts, it can easily become a habit, especially as your little one likely finds it so comforting. It's helpful to remember that thumb and finger sucking is a common habit—and that all kids have habits—so you have no need to worry if your baby is sucking his thumb regularly.

Most children grow out of this behaviour. In fact, more than half stop when they are six or seven months old. Others stop naturally a little later between the ages of two and four years old.

In some cases, perhaps if your little one is feeling extra vulnerable or stressed, he may even suck his thumb on occasion until he’s about eight years old.

When Should You Try to Help Your Child Stop Thumb-Sucking?

Although thumb-sucking is normal for young children, if it goes on beyond the age of about five, it can become a concern. This is because once the permanent teeth start coming in, thumb-sucking can affect the shape of the mouth and affect how the teeth line up.

Once your child is about four or five years old, it may be time to wean him off this habit.

If your little one is still a baby or toddler and you’re worried about how his thumb-sucking may affect the development of his mouth, gums, or baby teeth, speak to your little one’s doctor or dentist for personalised guidance.

How to Stop Your Baby’s or Child’s Thumb-Sucking

For a baby, you don’t need to! It’s perfectly OK for your baby to be sucking his thumb. Once your child is nearing five years old or older and still thumb-sucking, you can work with him to help change the behaviour.

Keep in mind, it won’t happen overnight and you’ll need to be patient with your little one.

When starting the process, make sure that your child is in a happy place. Stress and emotional problems may make him more resistant to change the behaviour, as thumb-sucking gives him some comfort.

If you know there is something that is causing stress for your child, try to take care of that before concentrating on trying to break the thumb-sucking habit. For example, if you’re moving to another house or if he’s getting a sibling soon, it may be better to wait for things to settle down.

Here are a few things you can do to help your child stop thumb-sucking:

  • Offer regular, gentle reminders:

Your little one may not realise he is sucking his thumb, so remind him calmly that he is doing it and that it’s not good for him. Be kind and reassuring and avoid scolding or criticising him.

  • Understand the triggers:

Is there something that stresses your child and that causes him to suck his thumb? Does he have separation anxiety when you go to work or when you drop him off at kindergarten? Does he do it at a certain time of day or place? If you’re not sure what is causing the stress, talk to him about it and try to avoid the triggers if you can. If your child seeks comfort before going to bed by sucking his thumb, you can take a few measures to help him get a better night’s sleep, such as giving him a bath before bed or reading him a bedtime story.

  • Use positive reinforcement:

Set small goals to encourage him, like no thumb-sucking an hour before bed (and then none after dinner, then not doing it all day, for example). Reward him with encouragement and praise, or a specific reward, each time he goes the full time without thumb-sucking.

  • Consider aversive measures as a last resort:

If, after a while, you notice your child is still thumb-sucking, even after trying the above ideas, consult your child's doctor for advice. Your doctor may recommend aversive measures, like coating the thumb or finger with a bitter substance or using a bandage or thumb guard to discourage your child from sucking.

  • Talk to your child’s dentist:

If your little one can’t break the habit, your child’s dentist can provide a personalised recommendation on what to do to protect your child’s teeth and mouth.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Thumb-sucking offers comfort and can be soothing for your baby, but there are no specific health benefits. In children under five years old, it’s generally harmless, but it can cause problems for the mouth and permanent teeth in older children.

  • There are a few things you can do to help your child stop sucking his thumb, once he’s about five years old:

    • Offer gentle reminders when you notice he’s sucking his thumb and remind him it’s not good to do.
    • Use positive reinforcement. For example, a sticker on a thumb-sucking chart might work well, as might noticing and praising him when he's being successful and not thumb-sucking.
    • Know the triggers that cause him to suck his thumb, like stressors or situations where he seeks comfort, and try to reduce or eliminate these or teach him alternative coping mechanisms.
  • As permanent teeth come in, thumb-sucking can affect the shape of the mouth and the alignment of the teeth.

The Bottom Line

Thumb-sucking is a common behaviour found in newborns and toddlers as it helps to comfort themselves. It’s not something to be worried about. There’s a high possibility that your little one will stop sucking his thumb by the age of four or even earlier. Even if you notice that your little one is occasionally sucking his thumb after he turns five, it shouldn’t cause problems for the development of his mouth and teeth.

Nonetheless, if this habit doesn’t stop by the age of five, you would want to take a few simple measures to break the habit. It could include giving your baby gentle reminders, providing positive reinforcement when your baby hasn't sucked his thumb for a long period of time in a day or simply eliminating the stressors causing the behaviour.

Keep in mind that at this stage, your patience and consistency will play a huge role in breaking your baby’s thumb-sucking habit. So, be patient with your toddler - soon enough he will be sleeping and comforting himself without sucking his thumb.

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