Thumb Sucking, should I discourage my baby?

It’s a frequently asked question,

One of the most common questions parents and carers ask regarding babies and thumb sucking is ‘should I stop my baby from sucking his or her thumb?’  In general, the short answer is no. Certainly not for young babies.

However, with online information, good and bad, so readily available today, it is no surprise that parents have concerns. Will their baby develop buck teeth? What about speech impediments or damage to the jaw structure? Is their newborn’s cute thumb sucking habit more trouble than it’s worth? What should we do about babies and thumb sucking?                 

Babies and thumb sucking -sucking is a necessary reflex            

For many babies, the habit of thumb or finger sucking begins whilst they are still in the womb. Others discover their fists and fingers soon after birth.  The important thing to remember is that a baby’s desire to suck is a perfectly normal reflex. In fact, it is a matter of survival. As I discovered when two of my children were born prematurely, a baby who cannot suck has great difficulty feeding.

Remember, when it comes to babies and thumb sucking, sucking comforts your baby

This natural rooting and sucking reflex also helps your baby feel secure. The act of sucking comforts your baby. For this reason, even when the feed is over, your baby may want to continue sucking. My health visitor used to describe it as non – nutritive sucking, stating that some babies simply had a greater need to suck than others. The same is true whether your baby sucks their thumb or a pacifier.

Using a pacifier rather than the thumb

The SCBU staff provided both my preemies with pacifiers in order to encourage the sucking reflex. They also explained that research indicated using pacifiers could reduce the likelihood of SIDS.

Many parents feel that a sterilized pacifier is more hygienic than the thumb. There is also the bonus that you can remove a pacifier, unlike a thumb. 

However, a thumb is readily available and won’t get misplaced at the bottom of  a bag. Neither are thumbs lost in the street.

Regardless of what your baby sucks, in infancy the benefits of sucking far outweigh any future risks. At this age, the main thumb sucking concern is a sucking blister. 

It is also good to know that most children end the habit themselves between their second and fourth birthday.


Ok, so what age should concerns arise?

Currently, with Covid-19 an issue, it has become more important to discourage older babies, toddlers and young children from thumb sucking. We are all advised that Covid-19 viral particles can survive up to three days on some surfaces, such as plastic and stainless steel. We also know the virus is spread like the flu, person to person.

When a person infected with COVI D-19 is speaking, or when they cough or sneeze, droplets of their saliva containing the virus can leave the mouth and settle on surfaces. When an infected child is also a thumb sucker, they directly deposit the virus in greater quantities onto surfaces they touch. This is because a wet thumb, just removed from the mouth, will deposit more saliva on a surface than droplets from a sneeze.

We may then become infected by touching those same surfaces or objects and then touching our eyes, mouths or nose. Equally, as toddlers and young children are unlikely to wash their hands prior to thumb sucking, if they have touched an infected surface before putting their thumb or fingers into their mouth, they can become infected.

As for the risks to teeth alignment and mouth structure, these do not usually develop until after the permanent teeth cut through. Problems then vary depending upon the intensity and frequency in which your child sucks. For this reason, we recommended that parents encourage children to end the habit before their fifth birthday.

Of course, nothing was ever gained by closing the stable door after the horse had left. Waiting until the permanent teeth have all arrived may be too late.

Therefore, if your child is still thumb or finger sucking at three years of age, it is a good idea to keep an eye on how the habit has developed. Does your child simply rest their thumb in their mouth? Do they suck vigorously? How often do they suck their thumb? Is your child showing any signs of ending the habit themselves?

The answers to these questions should provide you with a good indication as to whether some gentle encouragement might be called for.


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