When Should Babies Outgrow Thumb Sucking?

Babies learn early on to self-soothe by sucking their thumbs.

We’ve all seen it: The babies, toddlers, and children with fingers or a thumb in their mouths. We know it’s common, but it tends to worry parents anyway. Is this a bad habit? Is it harmful? Should I encourage my own child to stopand if so, at what age?

It’s normal for parents to have concerns about the habits their children are forming. Learning why kids suck their thumbs and whether or not it’s a bad idea can help you react appropriately the next time you see your baby stick his thumb in his mouth.

Why do babies suck their thumbs?

Thumb sucking is a natural habit for babies to form because there are several benefits to it. First, it’s often the infant’s first method of self-coping in stressful situations. Second, it can also help with digestion by encouraging the flow of saliva. Babies quickly learn they can help tame upset tummies by sucking their thumbs.

What are the benefits of thumb sucking?

Being able to self-soothe is a good skill for babies to develop. Plus, this ability will likely be welcomed by parents who don’t mind when their baby is calmly sucking his thumb instead of crying.

Some parents prefer their baby be a thumbsucker and not dependent on a pacifier. Thumbs can’t get lost under the couch or thrown onto the dirty grocery store floor. They’re always on-hand (literally) and you don’t need to worry about fastening one to your child’s outfit with a string they can get tangled up in.

Additionally, when your baby’s first teeth start coming in, sucking on a thumb or finger can help manage painful gums.

How harmful is thumb sucking?

At a young age, there’s rarely any harm to thumb sucking. However, as teeth start to grow in, excessive sucking can alter their growth patterns, according to the Mayo Clinic. This may not be too damaging for baby teeth, but the habit is best broken before adult teeth begin to emerge. Prolonged thumb sucking can also cause changes to the roof of the mouth.

Some kids are passive suckers, letting their fingers or thumb casually rest in their mouth. These children are less likely to experience negative consequences as a result of sucking. Others are more aggressive in their thumb sucking; you might hear a “pop” when she takes her thumb out of her mouth. This is more likely to skew tooth growth and cause changes to the gums or palate of the mouth.

How can I break my child’s thumb sucking habit?

Many parents who fret about this find they may not need to worry about how to stop thumb sucking after all. Children often let this habit fall to the wayside along with their bottles and blankies. Others who hold onto this soothing solution past toddlerhood often note that none of their playmates suck their thumbs anymore and take the initiative to stop. Teasing from classmates is also a common deterrent, Mayo Clinic pointed out.

However, if you notice your 4-, 5- or 6-year-old is still sucking his thumb, you may feel it’s time to bring up the topic on your own. Don’t scold, though; if the habit is a means to manage tension, sounding punitive or upset might make the situation worse.

It might be helpful to note what situations cause your child to suck his thumb:

  • Is it stress? You could teach your child other stress-management techniques to cope or get to the root of the tension.
  • Is it boredom? Give your child something to keep her hands busy instead of thumb sucking.
  • Is it sleepiness? Hand your child a stuffed animal to snuggle with instead.

Encouraging your child’s dentist to talk about the harmful effects thumb sucking can cause might also be helpful in convincing him to stop.