Thumb Sucking In Infants – Reasons & Ways To Stop It?

Thumb Sucking in Babies

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Arti Sharma (Paediatrician)
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Babies love sucking on their thumbs for different reasons. This is a skill that they develop and continue to explore. Ever had your infant aggressively suck their thumb for no apparent reason? Or are you the parent of a kid who unwittingly sucks his thumb? You may be worried if this habit of your baby sucking thumb will continue right into toddlerhood. You may wonder if it is safe and hygienic for babies to suck their thumbs and how to make them stop this habit. Below we’ll discuss why they do what they do and how you can help them kick the habit.

Is the Habit of Thumb Sucking Normal in Babies?

A baby sucking thumb is natural and there are many kids out there who do the same. Some ultrasounds reveal that the act of thumb-sucking may start in the womb!

What Are the Benefits of Thumb Sucking for Babies?

Along with calming your baby, thumb sucking does have some benefits which are as follows:

  • It allows your baby to map their mouth and builds the way for self-feeding and language development.
  • It helps calm the baby’s central nervous system and makes them feel secure.
  • It works wonders when the baby is overstimulated and helps them cope well. This eventually helps soothe them to sleep.
  • Your baby’s thumb acts as a natural pacifier and is always available.
  • It facilitates early exposure to bacteria and germs which is important for building a strong immune system.

Why Do Babies Suck Their Thumb and How Long Does It Last?

There could be numerous reasons for a baby sucking their thumb. From beating away boredom to keeping anxiety at bay, it helps your child cope with the environment. While many parents look down upon it, it is actually an act of emotional maturity. It is a sign that the child is asserting independence. Rather than crying or seeking you out, they have used their own resources to adapt to their surroundings.

There is no right answer for the duration of thumb sucking as every child is different. As a rule of thumb (no pun intended), most kids stop it on their own after they are five years old.

Can Thumb Sucking Cause Any Problems?

During infancy, thumb sucking isn’t a problem. In fact, if you have a thumb-sucking newborn, it gives you as a parent enough breathing room to pursue other activities. There are some misconceptions such as the belief that thumb sucking can cause speech disabilities. This is nothing but an unsubstantiated claim without any facts to prove it.

However, thumb sucking starts becoming a problem later as the child’s milk teeth begin to fall off. One of the thumb-sucking effects includes its potential to interrupt the correct alignment of the teeth. It can also lead to an oral fixation later in life where they may replace the thumb with cigarettes, alcohol or binge eating.

Are There Any Side Effects of Thumb Sucking on Infants?

Even though baby sucking thumb is safe to allow the little one to indulge in till the stipulated age, there are certain side effects that you need you need to consider:

1. Dental Misalignment

When an infant sucks their thumb, the continuous pressure that the thumb puts on the teeth causes the permanent front teeth to grow out at a slanted angle during teething. This can cause issues when closing the mouth as the jaws misalign a bit.

2. Callus Formation

Due to continuous thumb sucking, the thumb’s skin always chafes against the tongue. Due to this, dead skin layers known as callus form over the thumb. This is very painful as the thumb loses the protective layer of skin, and is prone to wounds.

3. Orthopaedic Issues

Continuous thumb sucking may lead to deformities in the finger, joint dislocation or misalignment, and excess bone growth.

4. Paronychia

Paronychia is a condition where bacteria infect the nail root. Continuous sucking leaves a small gap between the skin and the nail due to suction pressure. While sucking, older infants may even gnaw at the thumb causing the nails to get wounded. Such small wounds are the perfect places for bacteria to accumulate leading to an infection.

When Should Parents Intervene?

As the main danger of thumb sucking is improper teeth alignment, parents should intervene when their kids begin to get their permanent teeth. The best solution is to follow a wait-and-watch approach. If they have not grown out of the habit even after they are no longer infants, you can use subtle ways to try to wean them away from the habit.

Effective Ways to Stop Thumb Sucking In Infants

Here are some approaches you can use when you’re looking for ways on how to stop baby from sucking thumb:

  • Don’t Be Harsh: One of the biggest mistakes that parents make is getting upset about thumb-sucking. As the behaviour is prompted due to anxiety, adding negativity is only going to increase the stress level for the infant.
  • Finding Their Own Path: Most infants eventually grow out of the habit without any intervention being needed.
  • Distractions: Find out when your baby starts sucking on his thumb. These should help you identify the triggers for thumb-sucking, such as watching television or being left alone in a room. You could distract your child using words or actions when you are in the room. In case you need to go out of your baby’s field of vision, get a toy that you know would keep him engaged.
  • Talk to Them: Use baby talk to help them understand that thumb-sucking isn’t good for them. Though it may seem like a futile exercise, research has shown that infants are able to understand words better than previously thought.
  • YouTube Videos: Technology has helped parents access information easily. You could try the same on your infant by showing him videos of the dangers of thumb-sucking. As a precaution, you could screen the videos that you feel are appropriate and build a playlist around them.
  • Praise: A study conducted on infants showed that they are well aware of the concept of praise. Be sure to make your baby feel good about not sucking their thumb every day. However, avoid any kind of negative criticism as it could make them anxious.
  • Alternatives: Due to some of the dangers associated with thumb sucking, you could try alternatives such as a blanket or cuddly teddy bear.
  • Pacifiers: One can use pacifiers to wean their infants away from thumb-sucking. Choose specific times during the day when they can use the pacifier and gradually reduce the timing till they don’t require it anymore.

Effective Ways to Stop Thumb Sucking In Infants

  • Mittens: You can try to physically cover the hands with the help of some soft gloves, mittens or a thumb guard.
  • Bitter Medicine: Apply some bitter ointment (that is safe to consume) on your child’s thumb to wean him away from the habit. Avoid making it a punishment by showing constant affection.

Thumb Sucking Vs Pacifiers

Below are the pros and cons associated with the two approaches used by parents to control baby finger-sucking:

Thumb Sucking:

  • Easy Access
  • Teeth problems later in life
  • Emotional independence
  • Quicker sleep compared to pacifiers

Pacifiers:

  • Reduction in breastfeeding
  • May cause ear infections as it opens the auditory tubes
  • Control over the sucking by parents
  • Sucking in sleep reduces risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

FAQs

1. Is There Any Relation Between Duration of Baby Thumb Sucking and Personality Traits Later in Life?

While there are no studies that show a correlation between the time span of thumb-sucking and a baby’s personality traits in life, a trauma could induce this behavior during adolescence. Along with this, changes in sleeping patterns and being aloof are also observed.

2. Should I Let My 3 Month Baby to Suck Her Thumb?

Most 3-month-olds are likely to suck their thumbs to soothe themselves. Hence, if you see your  3-month-old sucking thumb, you may let her do so. Babies tend to grow out of this habit by the time they turn one or two.

While parents worrying about their kids is understandable, you must realize thumb-sucking is natural to most infants. Though there are some inherent dangers to it, a gradual approach of weaning your kids over time is enough for them to kick the habit.

References/Resources:

1. Thumbsucking; American Dental Association; https://www.mouthhealthy.org/all-topics-a-z/thumbsucking/

2. Thumb sucking: Help your child break the habit; Mayo Clinic; https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/thumb-sucking/art-20047038

3. Eruption Charts; American Dental Association; https://www.mouthhealthy.org/all-topics-a-z/eruption-charts/

4. Thumb and finger sucking; Australian and New Zealand Society of Paediatric Dentistry; https://www.anzspd.org.au/post/thumb-finger-sucking

5. Thumb sucking and concerns; Australian Society of Orthodontists; https://www.aso.org.au/node/49866

6. Lynch. S, Sears. M, Hancox. R; Thumb-Sucking, Nail-Biting, and Atopic Sensitization, Asthma, and Hay Fever; National Center for Biotechnology Information; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27401101/ July 2016

7. Davidson. L; Thumb and Finger Sucking; American Academy of Pediatrics; https://d3siu84079czqs.cloudfront.net/sites/pedclerk/files/migrated/thumb_0.pdf

8. Kalla. G, Tiomo. E, Onana. J, et al.; Morphological and functional abnormalities of the orofacial sphere associated with thumb sucking in children aged 3 to 10 years old in Yaounde, Cameroon; PubMed Central; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9391996/; June 2022

Also Read:

Sucking Reflex in Infants
Causes of Baby Putting Hands in Mouth
Simple Ways to Calm a Baby Who Like to Suck

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