Thumb Sucking and Teething: Should Parents be Concerned?


Thumb Sucking and Teething: Should Parents be Concerned? by Robin OBrien

Thumb sucking in very early babies can be seen as an adorable habit by many parents. However, as toddlers begin to teething, many parents are concerned that habitual thumb sucking can damage emerging teeth or even developing jaw structure. Is this something to worry about? Why do babies suck thumbs?

During an ultra sound scan it’s not unusual for excited parents to see their soon-to-be-born baby sucking its thumb. It’s as though parents know instinctively that it is normal and healthy for babies to suck their tiny thumbs – even before they are born. However, the thrill of seeing their young baby suck its thumb can often turn to anxiety in the months and years that follow.

All children suck their thumb at some stage. But why do young children suck their thumb? It would appear that the most common time for sucking is when children are tired, bored, or in need of comfort. There is widespread belief amongst child specialists that sucking is a born instinct; an automatic habit borne out of the necessity for breastfeeding. Some studies have shown that babies who had trouble early on in latching on to their mother’s breast, tended to suck their thumb more than those who latched on without problems. Also, it has been observed that babies who are fed every three hours do not seem to suck their thumbs as avidly as those who are fed every four hours. Babies who are bottle fed are also more likely to suck their thumb rather than babies who are breastfed. This is probably because breastfeeding usually satisfies the baby’s need to suck. It is the baby who decides when she is ready to let go of the nipple. The mother cannot tell when her breasts are empty. Bottle fed babies tend to finish feeding quicker than breastfeeding babies and this may exacerbate sucking – as the baby grow stronger and the nipple holes gradually become wider. This can be alleviated somewhat by increasing the vacuum in the bottle by regularly replacing nipples.

Are parents to blame? It would seem so. Recent Japanese research involving 1,131 pairs of twins found that there was a strong genetic influence in finger-sucking behavior in 66 per cent of male twins and 50 per cent of female twins and in nail-biting behavior in 50 per cent of both male and female twins. So, were you a thumb sucker?

Is thumb sucking harmful? The American Dental Association says that thumb sucking does not cause permanent problems with the teeth or jaw line unless it is continued beyond 4 to 5 years of age. In teething babies, thumb sucking doesn’t cause tooth decay. Tooth decay is caused by bacteria, not sucking. Sucking a thumb does not cause misalignment of milk teeth if the baby stops before 4 to 5 years of age. Any misalignment at this stage – up to the age of about 6 – is temporary as it affects only the milk teeth, and not the secondary.

Most babies will stop thumb sucking all by themselves. Some will stop at an early age, whilst others are much later. Many parents are concerned that thumb sucking at a late age is a sign of emotional immaturity or lack of self-confidence. Studies have showed that this is not the case; only when parents made it an issue, was the child affected emotionally or psychologically.

Constantly pulling your child’s thumb out of her mouth is not the best way of stopping her sucking. This approach can leave your baby feeling confused and in need of support – her thumb! Instead, you should try to create an environment where she chooses to stop on her own. You can weaken the thumb-sucking habit by distracting her when you notice her thumb in her mouth. Get her involved in something that uses both hands. You can also buy commercial products that you can paint on her thumbs. They are harmless but have an unpleasant taste. Another tactic is to use peer pressure and others outside of the immediate family. Children want to grow up; being in the company of others who don’t suck their thumb can be a powerful incentive to stop. Lastly, don’t worry. Children pick up parents’ stress very easily. If you make her feel stressful then she will continue to suck.

Don’t worry too much about your child’s habit of sucking her thumb. All children do it at some stage of their life and all children stop it at some stage of their life. All too soon, her habit will seem like a long and faded memory. 

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