Thumb sucking in perspective: Not a thing to worry about

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

Alana wrote in:

You’ve become my go-to guy for no-nonsense, ‘you seriously don’t need to worry about this’ advice, so I was hoping to get your take on thumb sucking. My 3 year old daughter still sucks her thumb often, and we were stopped the other day by a man who works as a pharmacist suggesting that I try a bitter nail polish to keep her from sucking her thumb. I do notice that her teeth are starting to be slightly affected by the thumb sucking, but she clearly uses it as a self-soothing measure (when she is sad or tired), so I’d never thought to discourage it (don’t kids grow out of that stuff eventually?).

What’s your perspective on this? Should I be intervening on her thumb sucking and telling her to stop? She’ll start kindergarten in the fall, so I’m not sure if that should also be a consideration?

I don’t think you can or should do much about the thumb sucking at this age. Let me give you reasons, both philosophical and practical, why it’s better to just leave her alone.

First: some philosophy. As Alana said, thumb sucking is a self-soothing measure. It helps young children like her daughter relax, and it’s often part of their go-to-sleep ritual. Does it sound right to take away a child’s way of settling down?  Many adults smoke and drink and do all kinds of worse or dangerous things “to relax”. At least thumb sucking doesn’t make the air stink, and no one is being hurt by second hand thumb, and thumb suckers don’t kill people in automobile accidents. Those electric Barbie jeeps just don’t go that fast.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if more adults just sucked their thumbs, or used pacifiers. Maybe the world would be a better place.

Besides the goofy philosophical perspective, I’ve got another reason to leave Alana’s daughter alone. There’s very little mom can do that will actually help extinguish Alana’s habit. Sure, you can tell her not to, or even pull her hand out of her mouth—but as soon as you leave her in her room or turn your back, it will pop back in. And anxiety about mom being angry over the habit will almost certainly cause more worry and thumb sucking.

What about the thumb sucking hurting her bite, or changing the way her teeth grow in? How much the habit affects her teeth and mouth depends on many factors, like how much and how hard she sucks, and whether she’s really pushing her teeth or just letting her thumb sit there. Either way, her dentist will be able to warn mom well before anything close to permanent damage is done. And almost everyone is going end up in braces, anyway. It’s all fixable, and it’s just not something to think of as a huge deal.

When Alana is older (typically age 4 to 6), she might be able to start thinking about thumb sucking a different way – as something that might put germs in her mouth, and make her teeth grow funny, and something other children don’t do anymore. By then, she herself might decide she wants to stop– and many children just do stop, all on their own. If needed, things like reminders, or icky-nail-polish, or positive rewards for stopping might be able to help her quit. There are also clever sort-of gloves that can serve as reminders, or even a rake-looking thing that can be wired into the mouth. But until a child really decides for herself, it’s unlikely that there’s anything mom can do to force the issue. And that’s OK.


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3 Comments on “Thumb sucking in perspective: Not a thing to worry about”

  1. pedi ER doc Says:

    I wouldn’t discount the effects of peer pressure on encouraging this act to become something one does in private…


  2. Alana Says:

    Thanks, Dr. Roy! It honestly never seemed like a big problem to me, but then when the pharmacist suggested I intervene, I got worried I’d missed the “you’re a bad mom if you let your 3-year-old suck her thumb” memo. You’re right though, even if I harp on her, she’ll still do it behind my back until she’s ready to stop (and do I really want to fight her about it? Not really). Really appreciate your input!


  3. Rajendran Chellappan Says:

    Thanks Doctor
    Very good message to the parents


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