Sucking thumbs starts early. The sucking instinct is a powerful one, essential for eating and survival. And it starts early, even before birth. Sometimes a baby will find their thumb and suck away while floating around in amniotic fluid and getting ready for entry to life. A habit that starts that early can be hard to break! And maybe it doesn’t need to be broken. There is a stigma around thumbsucking, and it does have some possible side effects, but there might also not be as much to worry about as we have always thought.
Thumbsucking is a technique for self-soothing. Babies are born wanting to suck on everything–fingers, toes, noses, whatever gets close. It is a calming practice and can peacefully bridge the gap between feeding sessions. As babies become toddlers, thumb sucking can become a calming practice in times of stress or anxiety. It can also be brought on by hunger or fatigue. Understanding the “why” of your thumbsucker can be an important part of deciding how to handle the habit.
Benefits of Thumbsucking
Yep, you read that right. There are actually some bright sides to thumbsucking. Here are a few:
- Comfort That Can’t Get Lost. Anyone who has stumbled blindly around in a nursery, frantically scraping the sides of a crib in the urgent search for an errant pacifier while their baby is crying at 2 a.m. can appreciate the beauty of a pacifier permanently attached to their little darling’s hand. It is a tool for soothing that won’t get lost, and the baby can help themselves get back to sleep when they need it. They will always know where it is!
- Dirt Won’t Hurt. There is something to be said for the immune-boosting benefits that sucking on a grimy thumb might offer. Studies have shown that children who suck their thumbs have a lower chance of developing allergies later in life, thanks to the early exposure to local bacteria and pathogens. Sometimes our war on germs backfires; some exposure to germs can make our system stronger.
- Strengthen the Stomach. Thumb sucking stimulates saliva, which can keep the mouth clean and improve the muscles of the peristalsis process. Keeping those digestive muscles moving will improve a child’s digestion when they start eating solid foods.
- Teething Relief. As teeth start sprouting, those gums get awfully tender. Sucking a thumb can bring a bit of relief to those sore spots. And again, it’s a handy little accessory that you don’t have to keep track of!
Risks of Thumbsucking
There are, however, some dangers to thumbsucking going too long. Generally, children will stop sucking their thumb on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. However, if it continues beyond that, there are some pitfalls, especially if the child is an active sucker and doesn’t just stick their thumb in the mouth from time to time.
- Overbite and Open Bite. If the thumb sucking continues actively as your child’s teeth are coming in, then that repetitive motion can cause the teeth to splay as they come in, resulting in an open bite. This means the teeth point in an outward direction and don’t come together as they should. An overbite is similar, but the thumbsucking has shifted the top row of teeth forward, far past the lower teeth.
- Skin Problems. If thumb sucking is a regular habit, the thumb itself can be in danger of skin trouble. The thumb can dry out and crack. It can also develop calluses or sores. The thumbnail can also get warped or damaged when exposed to saliva and the sucking action for that long.
- Speech Impediment. When the teeth are affected, so is speech. Thumb sucking can create a lisp or make the “D” and “T” sounds difficult to create, because the jaw might not be coming together in the right way.
- Social Stigma. Beyond the medical and speech challenges, prolonged thumb sucking can trigger some social anxieties. This is a tricky one because thumb sucking is also a common way to deal with social anxiety. Kids can be cruel, and if thumbsucking continues into the school years, there is a possibility of bullying.
What To Do
There are lots of methods for discouraging thumbsucking, but the most important element is to keep it positive. Focusing on the habit negatively will only drive your child to the habit. Again, most kids outgrow the habit with no help from parents. If they express an interest in quitting, then certain tools can help, including thumb guards, ointments, and retainers. Some of those are reviewed here.
Again, no need to rush to the store. Pay attention to when, why, and how your child is sucking their thumb. What are their triggers? Are there activities you can do to create distractions when those triggers come? Perhaps the prolonged habit is a sign of something deeper, and addressing that will naturally phase out the habit. If the thumbsucking is just something that your child does at night, and it isn’t intense or prolonged, then the risk is minimal, and not drawing negative attention to it might be best. Above all, avoid any conversation or practice that might generate a feeling of shame in your child. That won’t do anyone any good.
If you are still concerned about your child’s thumbsucking habits, then contact your dentist. We are here in Weber County, and our experienced family dentists are ready to answer questions, resolve concerns, and help you figure out a plan to give your kids the healthiest smile and strongest teeth.