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Is thumb sucking really that bad?

child laying in bed sucking his thumb

We’ve all seen it before: a drooly baby, happily sucking away on its thumb or fingers. An adult approaches, lowers their face down, and with a goofy grin and a full-on baby voice says, “What are you doing with that thumb? Get that thumb out of your mouth.”

Can you picture it? Maybe you have even done it. For many, the reaction to thumb sucking is that it should be nipped in the bud before it develops into a habit through the toddler and preschool years. But for babies, this isn’t merely a habit to break; it’s a method of self-soothing, which is actually a great thing. Your child has found a natural approach to cope with their environment in their own way.

Calgary mom Cindy Yarnell says her daughter Caydence sucks her thumb to soothe herself, especially when she is tired. “Caydence stopped taking her soother and found her thumb around four months of age, and has been sucking it ever since,” she says. “She completely refused her soother and we were unable to stop her from sucking her thumb. With her being a baby we couldn’t reason with her! We aren’t too concerned, as our doctor and dentist both say she will outgrow it and not to stress about it.”

Pediatrician Dr. Janine Flanagan agrees. “Thumb sucking is natural. Many infants suck their thumbs even before they are born. Thumb or finger sucking provides soothing and comfort for infants. Deterring young babies is not recommended.”

Parents often turn to a pacifier as an option, knowing that pacifiers can eventually be tossed in the garbage. It’s a little more difficult to get rid of thumbs! However, the reality is that babies make their own choices. “Pacifiers are an easier habit to break because they can be physically removed — as compared to the thumb,” says Dr. Flanagan. “But most children will have developed their own preference (thumb versus soother) early on.”

The real time for concern is if your baby’s thumb sucking continues through the toddler and preschool years, and into school age, when adult teeth are beginning to come in. The pressure from the sucking can cause the teeth to protrude, which may lead to problems with your child’s bite.

Cindy spoke with her dentist about this. “The dentist just said it’s likely that Caydence will need orthodontics. So far her teeth still look perfectly normal, but we won’t really know until her adult teeth grow in.”

When it comes to toddlers, you may have a better chance reasoning with them. Dr. Flanagan says, “Distraction and encouragement can be helpful, but most children between two to three years actually stop on their own as their need for sucking decreases or they develop other ways to comfort themselves.”

When that age arrives, positive reinforcement techniques and distractions may be helpful to help your child kick their habit to the curb.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Fall 2017. Photo by iStockphoto.

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