Thumbsucking: What Parents Should Know

Thumbsucking is adorable... but is it harmful?

Thumbsucking is adorable… but is it harmful?

The majority of babies suck their thumbs, and most kids outgrow it at some point before they trek off to kindergarten. Some parents, however, find it annoying or worry that their children will permanently damage their teeth. The good news is that most of the time, thumbsucking is nothing to worry about. The bad news is that sometimes it can cause damage. Here’s the lowdown on what you should do if your child is sucking his or her thumb.

Thumbsucking During Infancy

Fetuses can suck their thumbs in the womb, so it makes sense that many continue the habit once they’re out in the world. Sucking is soothing to babies, and since they’re unlikely to be sucking on a breast or a bottle every time they feel the urge to soothe themselves, a thumb is a handy alternative. If you already know that you don’t want to have a child who sucks his or her thumb, now is a good time to introduce a pacifier. The good thing about a pacifier is that you can eventually phase it out. The bad thing, of course, is that it can be lost or dropped out of your baby’s reach, and this can cause crying and stress from your baby, which can, in turn, cause you crying and stress, particularly in the middle of the night.

During the Toddler  Years

Dentists generally agree that thumbsucking up to about the age of four is unlikely to cause an issue with the teeth. If your toddler is still sucking his or her thumb, distraction might work. Come up with something enticing for your little one to do that is easier with both hands, like playing with playdough or pushing a doll stroller. For a young toddler, it’s probably better not to draw attention to it. A preschooler who doesn’t want to suck his or her thumb, perhaps because they’re going off to school and don’t want the other kids to notice, might be more receptive to reminders, or they might not. If you do opt for reminders, they should be gentle and positive. Don’t shame your child for thumbsucking, because that will just make him or her want to do it more.

Older Children and Thumbsucking

Kids who are still sucking their thumbs when they begin school are likely doing it out of habit or because they are still using it as a method of soothing themselves. Talk to your child and see if he or she does it when feeling nervous. If there is some anxiety involved, teach him or her ways to relax. Maybe closing their eyes and thinking about themselves playing at the park or petting the family pet can help them calm down just as effectively. If your child is not sucking during the day but you find them doing it in their sleep, ask your dentist whether it’s causing a problem. If your child wants or needs to stop, there are thumb caps that snap onto the thumb to make sucking less appealing. Don’t use foul-tasting liquids; these have been shown to be ineffective, and most kids hate them.

If you are worried about your child’s teeth, talk to their pediatrician or dentist to find out whether you should take additional steps to curb the thumbsucking habit.

Creative Commons image by Futurestreet (Flickr).