Thumb Sucking Habits

For a baby, thumb sucking is a way of self-soothing. However, as they grow, you’re probably concerned about hygiene or about it affecting their dental development. Find out how you can get your toddler to stop the habit.

Thumb-sucking is a common habit in toddlers – one that you might be keen to put a stop to. Let’s take a look at the possible reasons why your child might thumb suck, and what you can do to encourage them to stop thumb-sucking.

What causes thumb-sucking?

Babies are born with a natural urge to suck, and sucking when not feeding is a type of self-comforting behavior. This is why many babies find using a pacifier comforting. Other babies will suck on their fingers or thumbs, which can continue as they grow into toddlers.

There are numerous reasons your toddler might turn to his or her thumb for comfort.

These include:

  • Feeling unwell
  • Feeling tired
  • Trying to fall asleep at night-time
  • Trying to comfort himself during the night
  • Feeling bored
  • Feeling anxious or scared
  • Trying to adjust to a new challenge such as starting nursery

Different types of thumb-sucking

Some children rest their thumb passively in their mouth to comfort themselves. Other will suck on their thumb aggressively, often causing a popping sound as the thumb goes in and out of the mouth.

Should I be worried?

Passive thumb-sucking is less of an issue than active thumb-sucking, which can cause problems with the development of the baby teeth, which should start to appear during your child’s first year. Prolonged thumb-sucking can also cause problems with mouth-growth and the alignment of the teeth, and the American Dental Association (ADA) advises that parents gently encourage their child to stop thumb sucking after the age of four. Your doctor should be able to offer advice if you have any concerns.

How to stop thumb-sucking

Most children will stop sucking thumb naturally between the ages of two and four, especially as they become ‘busier’ and more active exploring, playing and learning. The start of nursery or pre-school can also be a catalyst for them curbing this behavior of their own accord, especially if the habit is mentioned by other children.

If you do feel that your toddler needs help stopping thumb-sucking, there are some simple steps that you can take to help minimize this behavior. These include:

Praise, don’t pressure

Don’t tell your child off for thumb-sucking. Instead, praise them when they have a period of not putting their thumb in their mouth. For example, you could say, “You did so well to not suck your thumb before naptime / at nursery / while I read you that story.”

Reward non-sucking

You could offer rewards when your child does especially well at avoiding thumb-sucking. This could be a sticker for a reward chart, a small toy, or a treat such as a swimming trip or other activity your child enjoys.

Offer comfort

Comfort your child if they seem anxious or are going into a situation where you might expect them to be anxious – at vaccination time, when visiting the dentist or their first day at nursery, for example. Doing so will help ease the need for them to self-comfort through thumb-sucking.

Distraction technique

If you can identify the key times your toddler tends to thumb-suck, try to distract him from the habit. For example, if they often thumb-suck during their bedtime story, you could ask him or her to turn the pages.

Avoid over-tiredness

If tiredness is a trigger for your toddler’s thumb-sucking, try to get them settled for their nap or bedtime before they become over-tired.

See the dentist

If your child is resistant to breaking the habit, a trip to the dentist can be a good idea. Your dentist will be able to advise you on how to stop thumb sucking, and having them speak directly to your child could help. Ask your dentist to explain to your child the tooth and mouth problems that thumb-sucking could cause – they may be more likely to listen to someone other than mum or dad!

Try not to worry

Putting too much pressure on your child to stop thumb-sucking could actually increase their anxiety and prolong the process. Just be consistent in offering alternatives to thumb-sucking, and offering praise on good days. Your doctor will also be a good source of advice.

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