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Should I stop my baby from thumb-sucking?

The image of a baby or toddler sucking his thumb is almost as associated with babyhood as the image of that same baby or toddler with a bottle in his mouth. And like the bottle, thumb-sucking may look adorable, but it can cause problems later on in Baby’s life, if it goes on too long. Unlike the bottle, though, many people see thumb-sucking as a bad habit as soon as it starts, which isn’t really fair to the comforting self-soothing habit that’s been sending tots to tearless sleep for generations.

Why does he do it?

Babies start out sucking their thumbs for the same reason that they’re often given pacifiers. Sucking is a biological need at this age, but it’s also a common early self-soothing method. As children get older, beyond giving comfort, sucking can be a way for them to occupy themselves when they’re bored, or to distract themselves when they’re sick or upset. Non-nutritive sucking, or sucking on fingers, pacifiers, or other objects, is most common in the first 6 months of a child’s life, and often stops naturally after the first year or two. In instances where babies don’t stop thumb-sucking on their own, it can be because it’s the self-soothing method they’re most comfortable with or, as time goes on, it could just be a firmly established habit.

Concerns

The main physical concern around thumb-sucking is dental issues. Children who still suck their thumbs as their adult teeth start to grow in are at risk of developing an overbite, or buck teeth. Once an overbite has formed, it can take some serious orthodontia to correct it. This means that, technically, thumb-sucking doesn’t become a problem until around the age of 5. However, thumb-sucking, like all habits, tends to either stop naturally on its own or get harder to stop as time goes on, so some parents choose to put a stop to the habit earlier than that.

Many parents are also concerned about the germs a child might be exposed to from thumb-sucking. Germs also become more of a problem as children get older and are exposed to more people and settings, and therefore more germs. In fact, many researchers believe that early thumb-sucking may help build a child’s immunities against certain germs. If you’re concerned, don’t hesitate to check in with Baby’s doctor about it.

The bottom line

According to The American Dental Association, children can usually suck their thumbs until they’re around 4 or 5 without any negative impact on their teeth. Many children stop on their own as they get older, and start spending more time with other children – peer pressure is a great motivator. On the other hand, really committed thumb-suckers who don’t stop on their own can have a harder time stopping the longer they’ve been sucking. There’s a time and a place for everything, thumb-sucking probably included. Just make sure you talk to Baby’s doctor or dentist about it if you start to feel concerned.

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