Stop Fretting So Much About Your Thumb Sucking Kid

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
Baby boy lying awake and sucking thumb in crib
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There are few early childhood habits people hate as much as they hate thumb sucking. Yes, the act of sucking your thumb isn’t particularly pretty. And there is something infantilizing about seeing a little kid still sucking their thumb. Since it’s seen as a “baby” habit, bigger kids who still suck their thumbs are sometimes ridiculed, but sucking their thumb may not be as bad as it seems. In fact, there are some benefits to the behavior, including self-soothing.

“I actually highly encourage the use of sucking on fingers and hands,” Kandra Becerra, owner and founder of Rocky Mountain Sleeping Baby tells The New York Times Parenting. “And what’s interesting is that doesn’t always mean it’s going to be a prolonged journey.” The way Becerra views thumb sucking is largely positive. If your child is sucking their thumb, especially at bedtime, it’s a pretty good indicator that they’re pros at self-soothing. And if they’re good at self-soothing, they’re probably sleeping a lot better than some other kids might be.

Being able to self-soothe is what all parents want for their young children. When you’re deep in the throes of early parenthood, you want rest and peace. Kids figuring out ways to self-soothe gives us that. It’s one less thing that we have to worry about. More importantly, it’s one less thing that they need us for. Being able to give them a little bit of space and independence is a big deal for everyone.

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“The child who figured out how to self-soothe is resilient and resourceful! They realize that sucking is comforting and that they cannot have mother’s breast or bottle — so they find the next best thing,” psychotherapist Jennifer Noble, Ph.D., also tells The New York Times. “As they age, they can continue this behavior until brain development and emotional maturity reach a point where they don’t need that behavior anymore.”

Societal views on thumb sucking can play a large part of how parents feel about their children adopting the behavior. Many of us have opinions on thumb sucking, even if they’re not conscious. Kids who suck their thumb are seen as infantile. If they’re still doing it by kindergarten, it can be a topic of ridicule. Even though it’s largely still a self-soothing tool, it’s no longer something that is seen as desirable. For older kids, we push that self-soothing shouldn’t be something everyone sees.

Parents may also be worried about potential dental problems caused by prolonged thumb sucking. If you’re worried, you should definitely talk to your child’s dentist or an orthodontist. A friend of mine says her son sucked his thumb until he was 10 and she never discouraged it. Her mind was put at ease when an orthodontist continued to reassure her that the thumb sucking was not causing any additional dental problems.

Even in those cases where it is causing teeth problems, the American Dental Association specifically reminds parents that “excessive pressure to stop can do more harm than good.” My friend likes to tell the story of when one orthodontist tried to shame her son into quitting, saying “what would your friends say if they knew?” Her son’s reposnse: “Nothing. They’re my friends.” Boom. Mic drop. (Needless to say, they moved on from that orthodontist to one who treated her child with compassion.)

If you look up thumb sucking, you’ll likely seek lots of advice on ways to stop the behavior. So many parents lament the fact that their children suck their thumbs. And while using it as a self-soothing technique is an incredibly valuable reason to not immediately squash the urge, there are other benefits to this behavior as well.

Author, blogger and former teacher Dayna Abraham makes a very good point about the action on her blog Lemon Lime Adventures. Thumb sucking may be a sign of something bigger. “By pinpointing the times it is at its worst, it’s easy to see she uses thumb sucking to self-regulate when she is nervous, afraid, or overwhelmed!” she writes.

A study published by Pediatrics in 2016 shed some light on the interesting health benefit of having a thumb sucker. The study followed 1,000 children in Dunedin, New Zealand from birth to 38 years old. Researchers looked at the effects thumb sucking and nail biting have on the development of allergies. Mainly, they were trying to see if the exposure to additional germs have an effect on the likelihood of developing allergies. So they assessed their habits at ages five, seven, nine, and 11. Then at ages 13 and 32, they used skin prick allergy tests for common allergens.

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Their findings support that thumb sucking isn’t all bad. At the first skin prick, 45% of the kids showed signs of at least one allergy. However, 38% of kids who had at least one of the habits showed signs of an allergy. That’s less than the kids who didn’t exhibit any of the “bad” habits. What’s more, those kids who exhibited both habits showed even lower signs of allergies. For those kids who were both nail biters and thumb suckers, only 31% had signs of allergies.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that your child won’t develop allergies if they suck their thumb, but the data is interesting and offers an additional perspective on this age-old habit.

So maybe we should ease up on thumb sucking. Being able to suck their thumb gives little ones the skills to soothe themselves. That’s a skill many parents struggle with teaching their kids. And here thumb suckers are, already doing it. If you have your very own Linus Van Pelt at home, fear not. The thumb sucking thing is something they will grow out of. And in the grand scheme of childhood, it’s actually a pretty useful “bad” habit.

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