You are here: grownupsmag.comHealthSuck It

Suck It

Suck It! - Grown Ups Magazine - Experts disagree on thumb sucking, but the bottom line? Everything in moderation.
Experts disagree on thumb sucking, but the bottom line? Everything in moderation.

Suck It

Thumb sucking inspires considerable controversy and angst. Some parents loathe the habit so much that they offer a pacifier at every whimper to prevent it, and others encourage it to avoid late-night crib fishing expeditions to locate lost binkies. Periphery players (like doctors, dentists, grandparents, and that nosy lady from the market) warn that thumb sucking contributes to misaligned teeth and the possibility of becoming a playground pariah.

Honestly, is it really that big of a deal?

Pacifier vs. Thumb: An Epic Battle

Babies are designed to suck. It’s how they gain sustenance and comfort themselves. And it goes without saying that all babies are different. Some will wholeheartedly embrace a pacifier while others will spit it out in favor of their thumbs.

But those differences can be hard for parents to differentiate between when bombarded with well-meaning advice from outside parties. Pediatricians encourage pacifier use as a way to reduce SIDS, but also warn that pacifier use can lead to ear infection. Dentists warn that thumb sucking will cause misaligned teeth that require expensive orthodontic treatments later in life. Speech pathologists note that prolonged pacifier use contributes to speech delays. With such conflicting advice (all based on scientific research), it can be easy to lose sight of what the baby wants and needs.

The White Flag: Surrendering to the Thumb

The fact is that it’s not that big of a deal if your child prefers the thumb over the pacifier. In the grand scheme of human history, thumbs have been around much, much longer than pacifiers. Most children abandon their thumb sucking habits on their own between the ages of two and four. Dentists acknowledge that most thumb sucking isn’t concerning until permanent teeth emerge (at age six). Even the most stalwart thumb sucker usually quits before they’re six-years old due to peer pressure.

That’s not to say that thumb sucking is never harmful. Sticking anything into one’s mouth introduces germs. The wrong sucking technique can also cause problems. Passive thumb sucking in which the thumb rests lightly in the mouth is better than vigorous thumb sucking or hooking the thumb around the teeth. Doing so can cause misalignment or other dental related issues.

Thumb Cessation Tactics 101

Although most kids will stop thumb sucking on their own if given enough time, there are a few who become so dependent on the comfort and routine that they need a little encouragement. If this is your child, it’s important to take a gentle approach. The thumb has been his or her source of comfort whenever he or she has been tired, scared, bored, or sick. Suddenly changing the rules and denying the familiar will be traumatic to both of you.

Forgo gimmicky thumb-sucking deterrents. Instead, watch your child closely to determine when he or she engages in thumb sucking. Perhaps it’s when he’s hungry, bored, or tired. Once you’ve established the trigger for the habit, you can offer alternative activities to help curb the behavior. Your goal is to head off the thumb sucking without your child realizing that you’re trying to prevent the behavior. Will there be lapses? Sure. Can you control the behavior every time? Of course not. But through trial and error, you should be able to create effective diversions that help change his or her habit.

 
Regardless of whether or not your little one is drawn to thumb sucking, neither pacifier use nor thumb sucking is inherently good or evil. There’s no shame in either approach. While a cease fire or peace treaty between the pacifier proponents and thumb supporters may not be on the horizon, keeping your child’s natural tendencies in mind will not only keep you above the fray, but also keep your child happier. Now that’s a victory worth fighting for.

About the author

Grown Ups

Grown Ups

Grown Ups Magazine is a free resource for parents, teachers, extended family, or anyone who lives or works with kids. Enjoy digital issues of Grown Ups on your iPad, iPhone, or at grownupsmag.com.

Read More