Understanding Thumb Sucking in Toddlers

Sep 30, 2022

Toddlers are pretty adorable. They just have a way of doing things that make the people around them go, “Awww, so cute!” While some cute toddler habits are harmless, other habits can be problematic if they are allowed to go on too long. Thumb sucking is one such habit. How well do you understand toddler thumb sucking?

Why Toddlers Suck Their Thumbs

Thumb sucking is a coping mechanism. It allows a child to mimic the feeling of nursing or bottle feeding. Feeding and sucking are deeply rooted, intuitive reflexes inherent in babies. Incidentally, this is why pacifiers are also such an effective soothing mechanism. That desire to self-soothe doesn’t stop as the baby grows into a toddler (or any other stage of life, for that matter). A baby who is used to self-soothing by sucking on fingers or thumbs may continue the habit into toddlerhood.

Why It’s a Problem

As a baby, thumb sucking doesn’t generally pose a problem. Pediatricians and dentists alike often recommend that this habit be discontinued between the ages of 2-4. It can be especially problematic if it continues into age 6, around the time when permanent teeth begin to come in. This is because thumb sucking can change the shape of your child’s mouth and the alignment of their bite. If stopped early enough, these types of problems may be mild enough to self-correct. Otherwise, the child will need orthodontic work in the future.

What to Do About It

There are a few things you can try if you want your toddler to stop sucking their thumb. Explain to them why it’s important. Remember that thumb sucking is a comfort mechanism. Pay attention to their patterns to learn when and why they suck their thumb. Then you can help them find a different way to cope with stressors. Try rewarding them for not sucking their thumb during tough times and keep track of their progress. When they reach certain milestones, offer a more substantial reward. Make it something they’ll enjoy and look forward to.

Not every toddler has a problem with sucking their thumb. Some never get into the habit, while others grow out of it on their own. Toddlers who carry the habit with them into their preschool years and beyond could set themselves up for oral health problems, not to mention teasing from peers who may perceive the behavior as juvenile. If your toddler is sucking their thumb beyond the point when they should stop, talk to their dentist and pediatrician to see if they have any suggestions for things you can do to discourage this habit.

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