Thumb-Sucking Is Normal Behavior

By Dr. Charles Ison

Thumb-sucking is a very common habit for infants and young children.

On prenatal ultrasounds, babies are even sometimes observed sucking their thumbs. It is a natural activity, but one that can lead to problems if done for too long.

Babies have an inherent need to suck. It is how they get their food, at least initially.

Thumb-sucking (and sucking on hands, other fingers or pacifiers) can persist even after an infant is weaned because it has become an activity that helps children self-soothe when stressed or anxious.

Sometimes they will do it out of boredom.

About 90% of children stop thumb-sucking between 2 and 4 years of age.

The American Academy of Pediatrics becomes concerned with the habit after children turn 5 because at this age permanent teeth usually start to come in.

Thumb-sucking can cause misalignment of teeth and narrowing of the palate.

Up until the age of 5, thumb-sucking can usually be ignored. Once a child is 5, steps can be taken to help the child stop the habit.

Initially, a child should be praised and rewarded when he is not sucking his thumb.

Triggers that cause him to suck his thumb should be noted, and other comfort measures (hugs, for instance) instigated before he starts sucking.

Gentle reminders not to suck her thumb can be given to the child.

A conversation with her dentist can also be helpful in putting a stop to the practice.

If the behavior persists, dentists can place appliances in the mouth that can make thumb-sucking difficult for the child.

Once a child starts school, peer pressure will often make thumb-sucking stop.

Pacifiers are a common substitute for thumbs throughout the world.

In breastfeeding infants, it is not recommended to use them until an infant is a month old.

Ideally, pacifiers should be all in one piece and cleaned regularly.

They should not be tied around any part of a baby or to the crib.

They should not be dipped in a sweet solution or forced on a baby.

There is evidence that pacifiers help reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

Pacifier use is also easier to stop in children, since they are not permanently attached to the child.

When the time comes to stop the habit, pacifiers can be “given” to various beings, both real and imagined (cartoon characters, babies at the hospital, birds, etc.) or traded for a very special item.

Dr. Charles Ison is a University of Kentucky graduate who has practiced in his hometown of Lexington since 1993. He is a partner in Pediatric and Adolescent Associates.