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Thumb-Sucking


Topic Overview

Is thumb-sucking normal?

Thumb-sucking is normal in babies and young children. Most babies and toddlers suck their thumbs. They may also suck on their fingers, hands, or items such as pacifiers.

Little by little, most children stop on their own at age 3 to 6 years.

Why do babies suck their thumbs?

Babies have a natural urge to suck. This urge usually decreases after the age of 6 months. But many babies continue to suck their thumbs to soothe themselves. Thumb-sucking can become a habit in babies and young children who use it to comfort themselves when they feel hungry, afraid, restless, quiet, sleepy, or bored.

In rare cases, thumb-sucking after age 5 is in response to an emotional problem or other disorder, such as anxiety.

Does thumb-sucking cause any problems?

Thumb-sucking in children younger than 4 is usually not a problem. Children who suck their thumbs often or with great intensity around age 4 or 5, or those who are still sucking their thumbs at age 6, are at risk for dental or speech problems.

Prolonged thumb-sucking may cause the teeth to become improperly aligned (malocclusion) or push the teeth outward. This usually corrects itself when the child stops thumb-sucking. But the longer thumb-sucking continues, the more likely it is that orthodontic treatment will be needed.

Speech problems caused by thumb-sucking can include not being able to say Ts and Ds, lisping, and thrusting out the tongue when talking.

When does a child need treatment for thumb-sucking?

Many experts recommend ignoring thumb-sucking in a child who is preschool age or younger.

Children who suck their thumbs may need treatment when they:

  • Continue to suck a thumb often or with great intensity around age 4 or older. (A callus on the thumb is one sign of intense sucking.)
  • Ask for help to stop.
  • Develop dental or speech problems as a result of sucking their thumbs.
  • Feel embarrassed or are teased or shamed by other people.

How is problem thumb-sucking treated?

Simple home treatment measures stop most children from sucking their thumbs. But if your child has a sucking habit around age 4 or older, schedule a visit with your child's doctor or dentist.

At home, treatment includes parents setting rules and providing distractions. It may help to limit the times and places that your child is allowed to suck his or her thumb and to put away blankets or other items your child associates with thumb-sucking. Putting gloves on your child's hands or wrapping the thumb with an adhesive bandage or a cloth may help remind your child not to suck the thumb.

Offering praise, positive attention, and rewards for not thumb-sucking may also help your child break the habit. For example, put stickers on a calendar each day that your child doesn't suck his or her thumb. After an agreed-upon number of days, have a celebration for your child.

Don't shame or punish your child for thumb-sucking. This will only lower your child's self-esteem.

If home treatment doesn't work and you are concerned or feel frustrated about your child's thumb-sucking, talk with your child's doctor. There may be other treatment options, such as behavioral therapy, thumb devices, or devices for the mouth. But remember that thumb-sucking usually isn't a problem in children at preschool age or younger. Most children will stop on their own if you give them time.

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