The debate surrounding thumb sucking is one that most parents will not only be familiar with but will also have an opinion on. But is it really any better or worse than a dummy? And once he’s started, how is the best way to stop your child from popping that digit in his mouth? Read on to find out the truth behind the myths surrounding thumb sucking and get some practical help in encouraging your toddler to give it up!

Why do babies suck their thumbs?

Thumb sucking is a very common childhood habit, thought to occur in about 80 per cent of babies and infants. Parents usually notice it within the first three months of their child’s life but ultrasound scans have observed babies in the womb sucking their thumbs from 28 weeks gestation.

Sucking is one of a baby’s natural reflexes and they use it as a way to calm themselves down when they are tired, hungry, bored or just in need of comfort. As it is relaxing, it may also help induce sleep.

Rosemarie Van Norman is a Certified Orofacial Myologist – an expert in thumb and finger sucking. She says, “Thumb sucking actually makes the brain produce endorphins, which calm the body and give the child pleasure-almost like that feeling of satisfaction you get after eating a big meal. “There’s an actual change in body chemistry that takes place when a child sucks his thumb.”

Buck teeth and shrunken digits?

Despite the fact that it’s perfectly normal – as well as therapeutic – for babies to suck, many parents remain concerned about their child’s habit. Much of this is due to the horror stories associated with thumb sucking, most of which are totally untrue.

It causes prominent teeth

This is not a problem until after the milk teeth have fallen out and the adult teeth are coming through. At this stage, thumb sucking can force teeth forward into a more prominent position, as well as damage the growth and formation of the upper palate (roof of the mouth). However, research and dentists agree that thumb sucking as a baby or toddler will not have any lasting effect on your child’s teeth.

A sucked thumb will not grow properly

This is not strictly true, although the skin on the thumb can get soggy and sore. TV doctor, Hilary Jones says this happens because “the enzymes in saliva and the constant wetness caused by the constant thumb sucking irritates the skin and causes a form of mild dermatitis,” but can be rectified using a mild cortisone cream.

Thumb suckers are mentally unbalanced

No they’re not, neither are they emotionally impaired or destined to a life of thumb-sucking. No-one knows where these myths started but research has proven them to be not true.

Thumb or dummy?

Everyone, whether or not they have children, has an opinion on sucking thumbs, dummies or neither. Ultimately it is down to the parent and child but there are pros and cons for each.

Thumbs are always available, they don’t fall on the floor or get lost at night, and they fit perfectly. Dummies, however, are thought to be less damaging to teeth, primarily because they are often gone long before milk teeth are. Dummies can also be taken from a child while thumbs are somewhat more permanent!

When does it become a problem?

Most children give up thumb sucking during their toddler years but 15 per cent are still doing it at the age of four.

The main problem associated with thumb sucking is the risk of crooked or prominent teeth. However, this only becomes a problem if your child is still sucking her thumb when the adult teeth are coming through, usually at around 5 or 6 years old. Also, different types of thumb sucking differ in the damage they can do to teeth. Experts from the BDA say that it’s the intensity of the sucking that causes tooth problems. Children who rest their thumbs in their mouth are less likely to suffer problems than their forceful sucking peers.

Can it be prevented?

Babies are born with the need to suck but in some babies the need is more pronounced than in others. To fulfil this non-nutritional need, some babies suck dummies and some suck fingers. Because of this, thumb sucking in young babies is not preventable. However, research has shown that attitudes to thumb sucking can be a cause of the habit continuing.

Dr B D Schmitt, author of Your Child’s Health, says, “Thumb sucking lasting beyond the age of five can be prevented if you avoid pulling your child’s thumb out of his mouth at any age. Also, don’t comment in your child’s presence about your dissatisfaction with the habit.”

Drop the habit!

The sucking need usually diminishes by around 9 months and the great majority of children stop thumb sucking spontaneously as they get caught up in learning new skills and no longer need to be stimulated or comforted by sucking.

However, for those who are more persistent, there are a few tips to follow from the experts.

Dr Olwen Wilson, Consultant child psychologist at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, says, “From a psychological point of view, the key point is that the child makes the decision that he doesn’t want to do it anymore.” She says most children stop spontaneously but even for those who continue past the age of four, peer group pressure and embarrassment once they start school is an ideal time to encourage them to stop.

Rosemarie Van Norman says that parents should not try to break the habit in pre-schoolers because:

  • They only understand the pleasure they get from doing it, not the reason why adults don’t want them to.
  • They don’t care what they look like so the worry of crooked teeth won’t impact on them.
  • They live minute to minute so a reward ‘tomorrow’ might just as well mean ‘in 100 years’

However, Rosemarie has helped thousands of children over the last 30 years to stop sucking thumbs. Her advice is:

  • Do not make comments to the child about her habit as this type of criticism just makes the child more uneasy, and more likely to suck his or her thumb.
  • Because children depend on digit sucking to relieve stress, pick a time to break the habit when neither you or your child are experiencing any stress or change.
  • Pay attention to the cues when your child sucks his thumb and help them find an alternative (without them knowing you’re doing it)