Putting an End to Thumb Sucking 


Everywhere you are lately, it seems as though your child has his thumb stuck in his mouth. Whether it’s at bedtime, the dinner table, or the grocery store, no one can see what an adorable little face he has because of his thumb. “That stupid thumb,” you think, “will he ever stop sucking on it?!” He will, according to George Teuscher, a retired pediatric dentist and the editor of the Journal of Dentistry for Children. He estimates that close to fifty percent of children will suck a finger or thumb occasionally or regularly during their first year of life. By the age of six, that figure drops to about fifteen to twenty percent. While you may find comfort knowing your child’s behavior is normal, you may not find it acceptable. Knowing why your child sucks his thumb is the first step in altering his behavior.

Why Children Suck Their Thumbs

Infants are born with a sucking reflex. It is needed for nourishment and is pleasurable. Charles E. Schaefer, Ph.D., and Howard L. Millman, Ph.D., in their book, How To Help Children With Common Problems, explain that children suck instinctively when afraid, hungry, or tired, because sucking is comforting and soothing. According to Frank Caplan, general editor of the Princeton Center For Infancy’s The Parenting Advisor, breast fed babies may finish eating in five or ten minutes but continue to nurse for about thirty minutes in order to appease their sucking need. Bottle-fed babies may suck more because once the bottle is empty, it is taken away, and their need to suck has not been fulfilled.

Confusing Teething with Thumb Sucking

Your baby will begin teething around the age of three to four months. When he reaches this stage of development, you will find that your baby begins to chew on his thumb or fingers, says Caplan. Many parents interpret this behavior as the beginning of thumb sucking. However, a teething baby will generally only chew on his digits, whereas a thumb sucking baby will alternate between chewing and sucking.

Increase sucking time

If your child seems to be searching for his thumb immediately after nursing or at frequent intervals between feedings, try to increase sucking time and thereby head off thumb sucking. You can do this by getting a bottle nipple that flows more slowly, allowing for a longer, more relaxed feeding time, or by maintaining a three-hour instead of a three-hour feeding schedule. If your child is a little bit older, you may want to postpone weaning him for a short time, advise Schaefer and Millman.

Ignore the thumb sucking

While it may be difficult to do, tolerating your child’s thumb sucking may be the best therapy. Most children outgrow thumb sucking by the age of four without doing any damage to their dental structure. Disregarding the behavior may help your child stop sucking more quickly and will help you be relaxed. In fact, calling attention to the habit may even prolong the behavior.