Thumbsucking is a completely natural response babies develop along with their suckling reflexes. Although it’s biological, many parents stress over the habit and focus on how to stop thumb sucking. Not only do older thumbsuckers sometimes get teased by peers, but thumbsucking has also been known to alter the shape of a child’s jaw and teeth, potentially causing the need for expensive dental work.
If you’re concerned about your child’s inclination to suck his or her thumb, and wondering how to stop thumbsucking in toddlers, it’s important to first understand the why behind the tendency.
Why Babies Suck Their Thumbs
When it comes to the why of thumbsucking, most experts agree it’s a self-soothing technique.
“All babies have a rooting reflex that encourages them to nurse,” Dr. Bobbi Stanley of Stanley Dentistry in Cary, NC, tells Parentology. “They naturally want to put their thumbs and fingers, which are similar in size and shape to a nipple, in their mouths. [In fact], the rooting reflex is such an ingrained self-soothing method, some babies begin sucking their thumbs in the womb.”
Michigan Medicine, a branch of the University of Michigan, backs Stanley’s explanation. According to the department, babies have a natural urge to suck, which should decrease after six months. If it doesn’t, it’s likely because the urge has turned into a habit that the child uses to comfort him or herself when feeling afraid, sleepy, restless, bored, or hungry. In rare cases in which thumbsucking extends beyond the age of five, it is likely a response to an emotional issue or other disorder, such as anxiety.
Several other experts argue that thumb sucking is essentially the first form of addiction or. Indeed, Addiction.com calls it, a proto-addiction. According to the site, thumbsucking encompasses all of the elements of more severe adult addictions such as smoking, drinking, and drug use.
To be clear, it isn’t a “sign” that the child will grow up with a propensity toward addiction. However, the habit stems from the need to self-soothe, involves oral fixation, and is difficult to stop, especially for older children.
How and When Should You Help Your Child Kick the Habit?
“It may not seem like a big deal for a parent who’s more concerned about potty-training and nap time, but it’s important to realize just how dangerous, and expensive, thumbsucking is in the long run,” Stanley says. “Children who suck their thumbs past two are exponentially more likely to need braces or another orthodontic device.”
However, Michigan Medicine, the Mayo Clinic and several other resources reassure parents that most children will naturally quit the habit themselves, at around three or four. It is at this age that most children learn to calm and comfort themselves in other, more positive ways.
If your child isn’t stopping naturally and you’re wondering how to stop thumb sucking in your toddler, make sure not to fall for common beliefs that do more harm than good. For example, don’t assume a pacifier is a better or worse substitute for a thumb; both have their positives and negatives, and it can be just as difficult to wean your child off a pacifier.
Likewise, WebMD advises to not use a glove, mitten or specialty thumb covers that companies try to sell to desperate parents. The child will just get frustrated, is old enough to remove it, and will likely want to suck more. Parents should also avoid those nasty-tasting gels or liquids that companies sell. “It’s just cruel,” family psychologist Jenn Berman tells WebMD. “It’s pulling the rug out from under your child and that’s not fair.”
If a child continues sucking his or her thumb beyond age five, there are steps parents can take to curb the habit without causing emotional trauma. Michigan Medicine and Mayo Clinic recommend using praise and positive reinforcement to encourage the child to stop. Both sites recommend against punishing or shaming a thumb-sucking child, as this may lower the child’s self-esteem.
Addiction.com also provides words of wisdom. Because thumb sucking is a difficult habit to overcome, the site suggests there are parallels between it and drug addiction. Though thumb sucking lacks the chemical dependency of drug addiction, in both types of cases, the challenge involves identifying and addressing the underlying issue that causes the child to attempt to pacify him or herself via oral fixation. Like with any addiction, relapse is common for thumb suckers, and parents must demonstrate patience, persistence, and forgiveness during the weaning process.
How To Stop Thumbsucking — Sources
Dr. Bobbi Stanley, Stanley Dentistry in Cary, NC
Addiction.com — What Can Thumb-Sucking Teach Us About Addiction?
WebMD — 9 Ways to Wean a Child Off Thumb Sucking
WebMD — Pacifiers or Thumbsucking: Which Is Worse?
Mayo Clinic — Thumb Sucking: Help your child break the habit
Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan — Thumb-Sucking