Four Thumb Sucking Facts Your Toddler Needs You to Know

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Nature vs. Nurture: The Thumb Sucking Debate - Part One


The rule of thumb

When it comes to thumb or finger sucking, pediatricians, child experts, and dentists agree. Their rule of thumb is that children aged over four years should be encouraged to break the habit. Some may even suggest three years of age to be the cut off point for thumb sucking. This is because, while on the surface, it may appear kinder to wait for the practice to conclude naturally, most children will have stopped by this point.  Those who continue to turn to the thumb are more likely to have developed a thumb sucking addiction than a comforting practice.

Addictions are much harder to resolve and have a tendency to result in complications.  The complications associated with thumb-sucking, for health and financial reasons, are better prevented than cured. But why? How bad can this natural habit get?


Painful pressure

Persistent, regular thumb sucking is medically proven to be detrimental for growing mouths. Mainly occurring once adult teeth begin to cut through, thumb and finger sucking begins to put the softer tissue at the roof of the mouth and the sides of the jaw under pressure.  In due course, the upper jaw narrows, preventing the teeth from aligning appropriately. This misalignment is a malocclusion. A malocclusion is a problem because it interferes with;

  • Speech (sounds cannot be formed correctly)
  • the face profile (it causes a recessive lower jaw and chin)
  • Eating (It becomes difficult to bite food)
  • Physical comfort (causes pain)
  • Self-esteem (children become self-conscious regarding the above)


Paronychia and pus

Thumb sucking can lead to painful blisters or an infection called Paronychia or whitlow. The condition can be acute, which means it lasts less than six weeks, or chronic, which means the infection lasts longer. Occurring when there is a break in the skin around the nail plate, bacteria entering the eponychium space causes the condition.  Inflammation, pus, and tenderness then become visible around the nail area.

While Paronychia is usually treatable at home, occasionally, a deeper infection requiring a doctor's intervention may develop. For this reason, it is essential to take conditions seriously. When left untreated, the infection can spread, causing;

  • Cellulitis
  • infectious tendinitis
  • nail dystrophy.
  • Sepsis


Phonetics and Psychology

Prolonged thumb sucking slows a child's social development because it affects speech. Even without a malocclusion, it is hard for children to communicate or learn to form words correctly when their thumb is always in their mouth.

Publicly thumb sucking may cause your child to become the target of bullying at the hands of their peers. Your child may also become aware of adults judging them because of their habit. Such awareness can trigger low self-esteem and shyness.



While children under the age of three do not generally require parents or carers to intervene when it comes to thumb sucking, an exception should be made if there is skin damage or infection.

Older children however, should be encouraged to end the habit before their adult teeth cut through in order to reduce the likelihood of malocclusion and other health issues occurring.


Next week: Three thumb guard myths you may think are true.

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