You are using an older version of Internet Explorer that is not supported on this site. Please upgrade for the best experience.

Worried about your child's thumb sucking?

October 13, 2016

Dating back to the early days of the popular Peanuts comic strip in 1954, Linus can be seen carrying his security blanket around with him and sucking his thumb.

Many of the comic strip’s characters from Charlie Brown to Lucy and from Snoopy to Rerun didn’t like Linus’ blanket and tried to get him to stop carrying it around with him. But not many of them addressed his thumb sucking.

“Thumb sucking is a completely natural response for babies that can actually be seen on some ultrasounds before a child is even born. It provides comfort and security, and soothes sore gums for those babies beginning to teethe,” said Dr. John O’Reilly of Baystate General Pediatrics.

“The good news for worried parents is that their child’s thumb sucking habit will often stop on its own or as a result of peer pressure when they begin school,” added the Baystate Children’s Hospital pediatrician.

When to worry

So, when should thumb sucking become worrisome for parents?

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), children usually stop sucking their thumbs between 2 and 4 years old, but should stop by the time their permanent front teeth begin to come in. After that, sucking may cause problems with the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth. It can also cause changes in the roof of the mouth. The intensity of the sucking is a factor that determines whether or not dental problems may result. If children rest their thumbs passively in their mouths, they are less likely to have difficulty than those who vigorously suck their thumbs. Some aggressive thumb suckers may develop problems with their baby (primary) teeth.

What’s a parent to do?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), harsh words, teasing, or punishment may upset your child and is not an effective way to get rid of habits.

A Baystate psychologist weighs in

Shannon Kay, PhD, a psychologist at Baystate Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics agrees.

“It is often better to praise children for doing something appropriate with their hands, rather than to catch them thumb sucking. In a classroom, for example, a teacher might praise a child for sitting with his or her hands folded or coloring,” she said.

The AAP and ADA suggest trying the following:

• Praise and reward your child when he or she does not suck their thumb or use the pacifier. Star charts, daily rewards, and gentle reminders, especially during the day, are also very helpful.

• If your child uses sucking to relieve boredom, keep his or her hands busy or distract them with things they find fun.

• For an older child, involve him or her in choosing the method of stopping.

• If the above tips don’t work, remind the child of their habit by bandaging the thumb or putting a sock on the hand at night. Your dentist or pediatrician may prescribe a bitter medication to coat the thumb or the use of a mouth appliance.

• No matter what method you try, be sure to explain it to your child. If it makes your child afraid or tense, stop it at once.

Dr. Kay offered an additional tip.

“If a child thumb sucks while viewing television or playing with electronics, pausing the television or game briefly while giving them a quick reminder about the habit can be quite effective. The program can continue when the child takes his or her thumb out,” she said.

It's all about praise

The Baystate Children’s Hospital psychologist emphasized that when it comes to praising or rewarding your child, frequent thumb suckers will need more constant praise.

“For constant thumb suckers, you might need to praise them every few minutes at first, and give them a sticker that will lead to a larger reward every hour,” said Dr. Kay.

There also may be a silver lining for those young children who suck their thumbs or bite their nails.

According to a new study published in the July 11, 2016 edition of the journal Pediatrics, New Zealand researchers found that young children who suck their thumbs or bite their nails may be less likely to develop allergies later in childhood.

The authors, however, do not encourage thumb sucking or nail biting, but suggest “there is some consolation in the knowledge it might reduce their risk of allergies.”