By: Emmelyn Cruz
My daughter, Rui, was a thumb sucker ever since she was a few weeks old. I breastfed her since birth, but from the moment she discovered her fingers when I took off her mittens, her thumb, or basically, any of her fingers (or even her whole fist!) became her next favorite.
Having come from a family who doesn’t believe in using pacifiers, I initially tried to stop her thumb-sucking habit. I tried to distract her with toys and when that didn’t work, I tried prying them off whenever she’s happily sucking – much to her dismay. So I tried a different route – trying to understand why babies suck their thumbs and are there really anything we parents can do about it.
Why do babies or children suck their thumbs?
Thumb sucking comes naturally for babies, as they are born with rooting and sucking reflexes – which then causes them to put their thumbs and fingers into their mouths, sometimes even before they were born. Sucking their thumbs and fingers also provides them comfort and gives them a way to soothe themselves, so they eventually get into the habit to fall asleep, calm down, or even just to feel good.
Do I really need to stop my baby from sucking her fingers?
Thumb sucking is mostly harmless until your child’s permanent teeth come in, as by then, it could affect her palate (or mouth’s roof) and teeth alignment.
My daughter got into the habit of sucking her thumb to fall asleep until around the time she turned 2. Since her permanent teeth are still a long way off, I let her be and just made sure that her hands are clean most of the time.
At what age do kids usually stop thumb sucking?
Thumb sucking typically stops during the toddler years – between ages 2 to 4. For older kids who might already be going to school, peer pressure might contribute to ending the habit. Although, also consider that your child might still revert back to it if she’s feeling stressed or anxious.
At the same time, if your child is already a preschooler you can try out these tips to curb her thumb sucking tendencies:
1. First off, you can try limiting her habit by keeping it at home and not in public, and during certain times and not all the time. Explain to your child that thumb sucking is a nap or bedtime activity.
2. Do not turn it into a battle of wills between you and your child. Don’t tell her that “you cannot suck your thumbs anymore.” Instead, try to praise her every time she doesn’t.
3. Talk to your child about her thumb or finger sucking. Explain to her and help her understand why she needs to stop and that you will always be there to support her. You might be surprised that one day soon, she’ll be the one to tell you that she doesn’t want to suck her thumbs anymore.
4. If your child gets hurt or injured, don’t stop her from sucking her thumbs. Yes, the main goal is to eventually stop her habit but also remember that said habit serves as her comfort zone. So not letting her be in that zone when she needs to after getting hurt, might only traumatize her more.
5. Practice self-awareness with your child. Whenever your child is sucking her thumb, ask her, “Do you know you’re sucking your thumb now?” If she says no, help her acknowledge that and help her find other ways to soothe herself – such as holding a blanket or hugging a stuffed toy.
6. Don’t resort to putting something on her thumbs to break the habit. Some oldies usually recommend putting condiments such as pepper or ketchup, or even vegetables such as ginger or onion to your child’s fingers to break the habit. The premise of this is that the child will lay off her fingers once she realizes that they taste nasty. Don’t do it. It’s cruel and unfair to your child. Thumb sucking comforts her, and doing something like this is similar to throwing out her favorite toy.
7. Come up with creative ways to tell your child that she’s growing up and one day soon, she would have to stop sucking her thumbs. Help her ease out of the habit by asking her questions such as, “Do you think Elsa sucks her thumb?”
You might think that your child is sucking her thumbs all the time at this stage, but always remember that this is not permanent. She’ll eventually grow up and out of this phase when she’s good and ready. In our case, I never even noticed when Rui gave it up. She kicked the habit on her own even before she started preschool.
Em Cruz is MomCenter’s editor and a doting mom to a decisive yet sweet daughter. When she doesn’t have her hands full of motherhood, she moonlights as a geek and bibliophile.