Is thumb sucking really harmful ?

When we see our baby sucking her thumb or fingers we immediately get alarmed. As we want the best for our children, we find ourselves worrying about the implications of allowing this. 

Will she get addicted to thumb sucking? Will it affect her teeth? Will he be made fun of by others? What will others say?


We parents are convinced that thumb sucking is bad and harmful and believe that it should be discouraged at the earliest age. So, we start pulling the thumb out of the baby's mouth, frown and show disapproval. As the baby grows into a toddler if this continues we start scolding and even threatening them." I will not talk to you if you do that. " or " No ice cream for you if you suck your thumb. " Also, we feel blamed and pressurized when grandparents and elders lecture us about allowing our children to develop such bad habits. 


Is thumb sucking really such a bad thing? 


According to Dr. Ross. W. Greene, renowned clinical child psychologist and the author -” Infants are hardwired to need and enjoy sucking as a separate experience from feeding. In some infants this need is more pronounced than in others. They exhibit sucking behavior most when they are tired, bored, or in need of comfort. Children who suck their thumbs fall asleep more easily, are able to put themselves back to sleep at night more easily, and sleep through the night much earlier than infants who do not suck their thumbs.” 


Through ultra sounds we have now discovered that babies suck their tiny thumbs in the womb even before they are born. This is a most natural action. Thumb sucking helps children comfort themselves which is an important skill. It is not a problem behaviour. 


We parents do tend to worry that children will never stop thumb sucking. But, studies have shown that more than 90% of children stop sucking their thumbs by their first birthday. Another fear we have is that it will affect children’s teeth. According to the American Dental Association, thumb sucking does not cause permanent problems with the teeth or jaw line, unless it is continued beyond four to five years of age


Interestingly, another fact to note is that the children who continue sucking are most often those who have been forcefully stopped from sucking. When we shame children for thumb sucking e.g. by saying “Are you a baby?” etc., it is really damaging. The child feels torn as he may instinctively want to suck his thumb but is made to feel that he’s bad to do so. Sometimes the child might end up hiding and sucking his thumb. This defeats our intention of wanting to rectify our child’s behaviour and instead teaches them to lie and hide things from us from a young age. 


For children in the first year of life, the comfort they get from sucking is important to them. As they get older, they thumb suck more out of boredom. We parents could provide them with opportunities to do interesting things with their hands to keep their hands occupied. This needs to be done without making it obvious. 


If by the age of four the child has still not quit, we could start working with the child involving her active participation in getting rid of the habit. We could say to her, “I know it’s hard to stop. How can I help you? What ideas do you have for this?”


With this information, the next time well-meaning grandparents and elders try to force your child's hand out of her mouth, we can be the ally of our child and say, “she will leave it when she is ready. It's normal for this age”.  Our support would help our child let go of thumb sucking more naturally. 

Author: Kesang Menezes is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.