Kara Angelone’s 3-year-old daughter Addie was a thumb-sucker from day one — literally. Tucked away in her baby book is an ultrasound image of Addie sucking her thumb in the womb. Now, three years later, she’s still not ready to let it go.
“It makes her feel safe and comfortable,” Angelone says. “I can tell it helps soothe her because, whenever she feels stressed, in goes the thumb and she calms down in a second.”
But should a 3-year-old still be sucking their thumb? Experts in psychology, pediatrics, and pediatric dentistry say there are things parents can do to help their children move past thumb or finger sucking.
Soothing by Thumb Sucking
“Sucking is very natural for babies,” pediatrician Robert Anderson says. “It’s very common for them to use their thumbs or fingers as part of their routine to find comfort and to soothe themselves.”
Within the first few months of life, or even sooner, a baby can become a thumb or finger sucker as a way to fall asleep, to calm down, or to just feel good, Anderson says.
At this stage, not only is thumb or finger sucking common, it is considered harmless in terms of a child’s growth and speech development. The questions most parents ask themselves, however, is how long should it go on? Should a child still suck their thumb when they are ready for preschool?
Kids Who Won’t Quit Thumb Sucking
“Usually, a child who is in the 2- to 4-year range will start to develop other coping skills beyond thumb or finger sucking, such as language development,” says pediatric dentist Mary Hayes.
Hayes says these coping skills replace the need for a child to suck on a thumb or finger. But for some kids, thumb sucking or finger sucking is harder to kick, which could lead to problems for their growing mouths.
“We used to think that as long as a child stopped sucking by the time they developed their permanent teeth there would be minimal impact on the mouth and jaw,” Hayes says. “Now, research shows that thumb or finger sucking can have an impact even at a younger age — as young as 2 to 4 years old.”
Hayes, a diplomat and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, says that the sucking puts pressure on the sides of the upper jaw and the soft tissue on the roof of the mouth. As a result, the upper jaw can narrow, causing the teeth to not meet properly from the top to the bottom. Although this can be fixed with braces, it can also cause speech problems such as a lisp that may need to be corrected in therapy.
The long-term effects of thumb or finger sucking don’t stop there. If a child has a cross-bite, a condition in which the upper and lower teeth don’t meet properly, it can make it worse. A “thumb hole” in the roof of the mouth, which comes from sucking, can cause the teeth in the back of the mouth to take on the brunt of chewing. This causes an imbalance across the teeth and affects the structure of the mouth and jaw as they are growing with the child.
“The trick is to work with the child to lessen her dependency on thumb sucking or finger sucking before the coping skill turns into a habit,” Hayes says.
How to Curb the Sucking
When your child reaches the preschool age, it might be tempting to pop their thumb out of their mouth every time they start to suck, especially if you think it might be affecting the growth and development of their teeth and jaw. But you may want to consider resisting that urge and use a different strategy.
“This is a self-soothing activity,” family psychologist Jenn Berman says. “It is important to remember that you will not have a child who is going off to college sucking his thumb. It will eventually come to an end.”
Adults don’t realize how anxiety-provoking growing up is for children, and sucking their thumbs or fingers is a soothing activity that can help reduce their anxiety, Berman says. So if your child is approaching preschool and still sucking away, here’s how to handle it correctly:
- DO try to limit the time that your child sucks his thumb to his bedroom or in the house, not in public, Berman says. Explain to him that this is a bed activity during nap time and at night.
- DON’T turn it into a confrontation. “Don’t tell your child, ‘You cannot suck your thumb anymore,'” Anderson says. “Try to recognize him and praise him when he’s not sucking his thumb instead of criticizing when he is.”
- DO talk to your child about their thumb sucking or finger sucking. “Help your child understand that when she is ready to stop, you will be there to help,” Berman says. “She will eventually come to you and tell you, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to suck my thumb anymore,’ because you’ve empowered her to get there.”
- DON’T prohibit your child if he tries to suck his thumb or fingers after being hurt or injured. “He needs to be in his comfort zone, and by not letting him go there, you’re only traumatizing him more,” Berman says.
- DO practice self-awareness with your child. “When your child is sucking his thumb, ask him, ‘Do you know you are sucking your thumb now?'” Hayes says. “If he says no, help him recognize that, and find another way to soothe him if he needs it, like a blanket or stuffed animal.”
- DON’T use the nasty-tasting stuff that is marketed to stop thumb sucking and finger sucking. “It’s just cruel,” Berman says. “It’s pulling the rug out from under your child and that’s not fair.”
- DO come up with creative ways to help your child understand that they are growing up and one day won’t suck their thumb anymore. “Ask your child, ‘Do you think Bob the Builder sucks his thumb?'” Hayes says. “Then they’ll think about, and start to process whether they want to be sucking their thumbs anymore.”
- DON’T try a glove or a mitten on the hand as a quick-fix to thumb or finger sucking. “This will just frustrate them and cause more anxiety,” Anderson says. “Likely, they’re old enough to just take it off, and as a result, they’ll just want to suck more.”
- DO remember that a child will grow out of the need for thumb sucking or finger sucking when he’s good and ready. “While parents may not like it, it’s best left alone,” Berman says. “Kids will eventually give it up.”