Thumbsucking: Good habit or bad?

Open mouth, insert thumb is a habit of baby’s that evokes mixed reactions from parents and grandparents. Baby may discover they can do this soon after birth, say a month down the line when they acknowledge their fingers and toes, or even in-utero as can be seen in many adorable ultrasound pictures! If you are concerned about this habit, here is what you need to know.

Why do babies suck their thumb?

Sucking is a natural newborn reflex and one they use to drink milk. Some babies have a need to indulge their ‘non-nutritive’ sucking reflex and they choose to use their thumb. This is baby’s natural way of comforting themselves. You will notice baby sucking the thumb when they are bored, tired, or sleepy; they may often fall asleep with the thumb in their mouth. This act of sucking calms baby down.

Should you use a pacifier instead?

Pacifiers are a good alternative to the thumb because you get to control when baby gets the pacifier. But on the other hand, pacifiers have a way of always falling down at the worst time and the worst places possible, something a thumb will not do. If it is about comfort, both are equally good, but with the thumb, baby has an inbuilt way of self-soothing, something parents may not be able to judge fast enough to give baby the pacifier.

Pros & Cons

The upside to thumbsucking is definitely that baby has found a way of comforting and self soothing without needing you to play a role. Most babies stop sucking their thumb by the time they reach a year old; still others will stop soon after.

The downside of thumbsucking is that if baby continues to suck their thumb well past the first year, this habit may interfere with the alignment of their teeth and/or the structure of their mouth, resulting in the need for dental corrections when their permanent teeth come in. So if your bub does not give up this habit by the time they turn two, you might need to step in and wean them off. Here are some tips to do this:

  • Remember that when your baby is sucking the thumb, they are in need of comforting. Focus on correcting or fixing the source of baby’s anxiety or stress rather than getting the thumb out of their mouth.
  • Once this stressor disappears, talk to them soothingly while gently pulling the thumb out of their mouth.
  • Distract them with music, sights, or alternatively, a plush toy or blankie that will both comfort them and need them to hold on with both hands.
  • Do not shame or chide your child for sucking their thumb. Instead, offer praise and reward when they resist.
  • At all times, be patient. Do not get frustrated or worried unnecessarily, because your strong reactions may only stress baby more and encourage them to suck their thumb harder to self-soothe.
October 15, 2020 — Rati Girish

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