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Thumb sucking: When does it become a problem?



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Created on Sep 27, 2023 · 5 mins read
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Many infants and young children experience a phase where they become incredibly attached to either their pacifiers or their thumbs. It can be frustrating as a parent, as it may seem like your little one will never let go of this habit. More frustratingly, you’ll find that everyone around you has an opinion on the matter.

Typically, around the age of three, children tend to stop sucking their thumbs, so there may be no immediate cause for concern. Most children naturally outgrow this habit over time. However, if your child heavily relies on thumb sucking for comfort and you believe it’s time to break the habit, there are several helpful tips to assist you in achieving that goal.

Why won’t my child stop thumb sucking?

Thumb sucking is a natural reflex that infants develop even before birth. It’s a way for them to find comfort and security. Babies often suck their thumbs to soothe themselves, regulate emotions, and create a sense of familiarity and calm.

It also provides a source of comfort and relaxation for children. It helps them cope with stress, anxiety, or boredom. The rhythmic sucking motion triggers the release of endorphins, which can promote feelings of relaxation and contentment.

Thumb sucking can also become associated with falling asleep or transitioning between sleep cycles. The repetitive motion and sucking sensation can help children soothe themselves into a sleep state or comfort them when they wake up during the night.

When is sucking your thumb a problem?

  • When it’s happening all day long
  • When it stops them from interacting with other kids or doing things because their hands are too busy

What are problems with thumb sucking?

Thumb sucking, while common among infants and toddlers, can pose certain problems if the habit persists beyond a certain age. Potential problems with thumb sucking include:

  • Dental problems: Prolonged thumb sucking can affect the alignment and development of teeth. It can lead to an open bite, where the front teeth don’t meet properly when the mouth is closed. It may also cause an overbite or other misalignments, which may require orthodontic treatment later on.
  • Speech difficulties: Thumb sucking can interfere with the proper development of speech patterns, particularly if the child continues to suck their thumb during the critical language development stage. It may lead to lisping or difficulty articulating certain sounds.
  • Infections and skin issues: Frequent thumb sucking can result in skin irritation, chapping, and even infections around the thumb or fingers. The constant moisture and friction can make the skin more prone to issues like redness, peeling, or fungal infections.
  • Impaired fine motor skills: Prolonged thumb sucking can affect the development of fine motor skills, as the thumb is occupied and not available for grasping objects or performing precise hand movements.

Not all children who suck their thumbs will experience these problems, and many will outgrow the habit without any negative effects. However, if thumb sucking persists beyond the age when permanent teeth start coming in (around 4-6 years old), it may be worth addressing the habit.

How to break the habit:

  • Be patient: Breaking a habit is easier said than done! Just think of all the things you’ve had to overcome yourself. So, give your little one a bit more patience and understand it might be a bit tough at first.
  • Observe their behaviour: Take note of what causes them to suck their thumb. If they only suck their thumb at specific times, you might be able to replace this activity with something else. Finding another coping mechanism for feelings of stress or another emotion can also be helpful.
  • Reward positive behaviour: Instead of scolding them when they keep sucking their thumb, try instead to congratulate when they’ve made it through a whole meal without doing it.
  • Explain why it’s important to stop: Your little one won’t understand at first why it’s so bad to do this. By breaking down the benefits of stopping (like good teeth so they can eat well), they will be more likely to find some success.
  • Ask them what might help them: If it has to do with some sort of sleeping issue, see what might be bothering them. They might need to transition to a blankie at night or an extra cuddle to settle them.
  • Set boundaries: You can try letting them know that they can only suck their thumb in bed or while watching something. Over time they will hopefully need it less as it’s getting weaned out of their lives.
  • Enlist the dentist: A little more of a push coming from the dentist might be enough information for them to start kicking the habit. They are well-practised in explaining this in fun and educational ways!
  • Involve their favourite teddy: Explain to them that their favourite toy or stuffed animal has a problem with sucking its thumb. Ask them if they can set a good example for their companion and see if they start changing slightly.

The takeaway

Encouraging them stop thumb sucking can be a gradual process. Distraction techniques, such as engaging them in fun activities or providing alternative comfort objects, can also be effective in redirecting their focus away from thumb-sucking.

Furthermore, involving your child in the decision-making process and discussing the benefits of quitting can empower them to take ownership of the change. Positive reinforcement, praise, and rewards for progress made can also motivate them to let go of the habit. Patience and understanding are key during this transitional period, as every child is different and may require varying lengths of time to break the habit.

Remember, the ultimate goal is to help your child develop healthy self-soothing techniques and become independent of thumb-sucking. With consistency, gentle guidance, and support, your little one will gradually move past this phase and embrace new ways of finding comfort.

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