Thumb Sucking Habit: Why Does It Happen, How To Stop

Thumb sucking is a natural activity of a baby. It starts when the baby is in the womb and normally stops as they grow up. However, when a kid continues to suck his or her thumb beyond infancy, it becomes a habit. Parents find it tough to break the thumb-sucking habit of their little one.

Thumb sucking consoles a child

Three in every four infants resort to thumb sucking in the first year of life. The activity is recognized as an appropriate and useful early childhood behavior. A natural outcome of reflexive sucking tendency of newborns, it provides them with a soothing comfort when bored, tired, or upset. Thumb sucking stops on its own as a baby grows up.

However, some children develop a strong habit of sucking their thumb and continue with their habit even past infancy, ensuing concern and embarrassment of parents. It happens as an automatic action without any mental or emotional issues to trace. There may be dental, social, and hygiene problems when the action is visible in a child above 5 years. Pediatrics and psychiatrists suggest various ways parents can intervene and help a child stop thumb sucking.

The Science of Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking by an infant refers to her activity of frequently putting one or more fingers into the mouth. Research indicates it starts during the prenatal stage – around the 15th week into pregnancy. About three-fourth babies suck thumb or fingers for a year after their birth while one in every five kids continues to do so until the age of 5 years. The majority of children stop sucking thumbs after 2 years. A few give up their habit when they join kindergarten. Many return to the habit sporadically when they are stressed or anxious.

Why Babies Resort to Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking is natural in an infant. A baby has a strong sucking reflex to facilitate breastfeeding. It tends to suck anything placed in its mouth. Apart from feeding, sucking also endows her with a great deal of soothing, warmth, and comfort. It also acts as a natural pacifier when the baby is upset or feeling bored. Thus a baby resorts to finger sucking for physical and emotional fulfillment.

The sucking reflex weakens after four months and ceases to exist in the second year of life. However, the instinctive behavior continues in many children until they find alternative pleasantly soothing experiences.

A few children become habituated to thumb sucking and continue even after infancy. The behavior is more automatic than instinctive, and many exhibit it without being aware.

Is Thumb Sucking Bad?

There is no known emotional, physical, or intellectual disability associated with a child sucking her thumb even after the toddler years. There is no medical reason to worry until your child turns 5 years of age. However, continuing finger sucking thereafter may cause dental problems.

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Sucking fingers at the time of teething may impact the palate and the lineup. The action leads to altered shape of the oral cavity or dentition. There also arises the risk of lack of oral hygiene and communicable diseases.

Parents too feel embarrassed due to their child’s thumb sucking habit. Such a child is also considered immature in the peer group and often ridiculed, leading to socialization problems.

Tips To Break Kid Thumb-Sucking Habit: The Dos

  • Look for triggers: Identify what prompts your child to suck fingers. A close observation will help you recognize a definite pattern of stimulus in your child that leads to such behavior. It causes her to feel stressed and seek comfort by resorting to thumb sucking. Address the stimulus and ensure your child handles it comfortably without being stressed or anxious.
  • Distract and substitute: Keep your child’s hands busy or engaged. A free hand is more amenable to finger sucking. Give her soft toys or something to play or hold while watching TVs or sleeping. Try to preempt their thumb sucking action, so that it breaks your child’s habit gradually.
  • Reward and restrict behavior: Appreciate and admire your child when not sucking fingers. Praise her for avoiding the habit and encourage progressive improvement. Similarly, discourage and expressively restrict her from thumb sucking whenever you notice her doing so. Use a carrot and stick policy albeit with words and affection.
  • Resort to favorite characters: Children have favorite cartoon characters or movie actors. Point out how her beloved idols are not sucking fingers to inspire your child.
  • Provide alternatives: Thumb sucking is an emotional fulfillment for a child feeling stressed, anxious, or distressed. Teach your child to face negative conditions with alternative emotional fulfillments, such as breathing, running, or talking. Let her realize your love, support, and protection to derive strength from.
  • Channelize stress: Talk to your child and address the reasons for anxiety and stress. Share her problems that force her to feel strained and find out solutions alternative to finger sucking. Provide her enough love, comfort, and warmth to feel consoled and soothed.
  • Start early: Try to break thumb-sucking habit from early childhood. It is natural, but has no real benefit. So dissuade a toddler from thumb sucking from the very first year and never let it become a habit.

Support and Guidance Is Vital

Let your child realize that thumb sucking has no benefit and it may impact her socialization process. Ask her the reason that prompts her to do this again and again. Let her be conscious of such instinctive behavior and develop self-control mechanism.

It is a better option to talk to a grown-up child sucking finger frequently. Let her know that it is a bad behavior and you do not approve of it. Help her be mentally prepared to give it up. This plays a role in dissuading her from thumb sucking progressively. Never forget to express clear instructions to avoid such bad habits.

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Evolve a gradual plan to limit and then end your child’s habit of thumb sucking. Put a blanket ban on such bad habit in public while convincing her that it is bedtime activity. Once the incident is limited to her napping time, try to help her replace it with a toy for emotional fulfillment.

How A Dentist Can Help

You can seek the help of a dentist when you fail to rein in the thumb-sucking habit of a grown-up child. Dentists usually suggest mouth guard or similar appliances to prevent side effects of finger sucking by your child.

Tips To Break Kid Thumb-Sucking Habit: The Don’ts

  • Don’t let a single incident of thumb sucking by your child pass without your disapproval. Be consistent in your rejection of such habit from early days.
  • Avoid shouting at your child. Embarrassment may force your child to avoid finger sucking before you, but continue with the habit away from your eyes.
  • Shun public admonishment, as it may force her to detest you.
  • Do not engage in harsh scolding or ridiculing your child. Confine it to gentle yet consistent discouragement.
  • Don’t try negative reinforcement.
  • No punishment except consistent disapproval.
  • Don’t put excessive pressure on the child, as this is an instinctive behavior.
  • Avoid turning the issue into a parent-child confrontation.
Ravneet Kaur
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Ravneet Kaur

Ravneet is a proficient author on mindful parenting, child psychology, and pregnancy-related issues. Her practical writing focuses on helping parents develop a compassionate understanding of child behavior and build strong family bonds. She also researches and writes on women’s health, pregnancy problems, relationship issues, teens, and child development and education.
Ravneet also blogs at www.wellnessguide.com
Ravneet Kaur
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