Should You Be Worried About Your Child’s Thumb Sucking?

Many parents grow concerned about their children’s thumb-sucking habits. Even though approximately 95% of babies suck their thumbs on reflex, some parents seek to stop the habit far too early out of fear that their children will continue thumb sucking as they age and it becomes no longer socially appropriate.

However, not all thumb-sucking situations are cause for concern. Use the following guide to know what is normal, what is not, and how to gently discourage thumb-sucking for an easy transition into childhood.

The Normal

Though thumb-sucking gets a bad reputation, the behavior is very normal for infants. In fact, babies often suck their thumbs and toes even when they’re in the womb. Despite Freudian myths, problems with childhood psyche do not cause the behavior.

According to Linda Goldstein, a pediatrician in Washington, thumb sucking is actually a good behavior in infants and toddlers. The habit teaches kids to self-soothe and often happens around bedtime as it helps youngsters fall asleep. Sucking on their thumb brings many small children comfort when they’re bored, tired, or upset.

When to Worry

By kindergarten, many kids will stop thumb sucking on their own. However, WebMD writes that one in five kids will continue the habit past the age of five, even though by this age kids begin to start teasing one another for deviant behavior.

Unfortunately, this is also the age when parents should begin to feel somewhat concerned. As adult teeth grow in, thumb sucking can alter growth and have negative results, like overbites and difficulty pronouncing “s” sounds. Sometimes, the skin around the thumb or preferred finger can become cracked, calloused, or develop infections, too.

Breaking the Habit

If a child is still sucking her thumb by the age of five or six, parents should take gentle measures to discourage the habit. According to Colgate’s children’s oral care blog, starting to break the habit before the age of four is most effective for aggressive thumb-suckers. Try one or many of these methods to help wean kids off their fingers:

  • Offer infants pacifiers so you have more control
  • Use charts and rewards to track progress in school-age kids
  • Praise their effort, even if the progress is slow
  • Observe where and when the child sucks, so that you can limit triggers and create distractions
  • Try going several weeks without mentioning the habit, in case the sucking is a reaction to criticisms or an attention-seeking behavior
  • Avoid harsh punishments. Remember thumb sucking is a comfort to children and a deeply ingrained habit. After all, adults struggle to break bad habits, too.

With a little patience and understanding, thumb-sucking can be a natural part of infancy and childhood, and end when the time is right. Avoid unnecessary stress and embarrassment by breaking habits gently.


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