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The Truth About Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking is a fairly common habit for babies, toddlers, and young children. It’s a natural reflex, and according to psychologists, mimics the soothing effects of breastfeeding. Babies have even been known to suck on a thumb or finger in the womb.

When our little ones are feeling stressed, upset, sleepy, hungry, or bored, they suck their thumbs. As parents and caretakers, we wonder about the repercussions. Should the habit be allowed? Should a pacifier be encouraged? The truth is, thumb sucking is unlikely to cause long-term harm and most children quit on their own, without any parental involvement, between the ages two and four.

Is Thumb Sucking Problematic?

If the child still has baby teeth, there’s no problem. However, after the permanent teeth arrive, the force of the thumb can push the top teeth forward. Changes in teeth alignment depend on the intensity, duration, and frequency of the habit. That said, thumb suckers or pacifier users aren’t always destined to wearing braces. If the child is still sucking strongly on the thumb or pacifier around ages two to four, rather than resting it in his or her mouth, there may be some cause for concern. Thumb sucking can also lead to sore and infected thumbs and introduce bacteria into the mouth.

Use Positive Reinforcement Instead of Punishment

A reward system is a proactive method to end the habit. Rather than reprimanding for doing it, try praise and consider offering a small incentive when your child goes a specific length of time without sucking their thumb. Since the habit is often triggered by feelings of insecurity, address those issues that cause anxiety and comfort your child. Reminders such as a bandage on the thumb or placing a sock over their hand can be helpful. And of course, monitoring your child’s oral health with regular trips to the dentist is always recommended.