Peopleís reactions vary
when they see a child sucking his thumb. Some feel strongly that
itís good for him to fulfill his own needs this way, while others
feel just as strongly that itís not. Because of the differing
opinions offered on the subject, parents are sometimes unsure about
what to do.
Babies begin sucking their thumbs for the same reasons they use
pacifiers and frequent nursing or bottle drinkingóto satisfy their
sucking needs. The thumb is always there and so the child. Is always
in control, which is not the case with the pacifier, breast, or
bottle. And a baby who sucks his thumb may be less dependent on his
parents to calm and soothe him since, with his thumb; heís able at
times to comfort himself.
Itís not unusual for a child to suck his thumb for yearsósometimes
until he is five, six, or even older. During the preschool years,
sucking gradually decreases, and by the time heís of school age,
heís usually sucking his thumb only at night before bed or during an
anxious time, such as the birth of a sibling or a move to a new
house. Some children, however, may occasionally suck their thumbs
during the day when they first enter elementary school.
There are pediatricians who advocate thumb-sucking and even
encourage new parents to help their baby get started on the habit.
These doctors reason that thumb-sucking is a natural and easy way
for a child to satisfy himself. Other doctor's say that a child
whoís given the breast or bottle on demand will already have his
sucking needs met and will not need or desire a thumb. Finally,
there are pediatricians who are against thumb-sucking, believing
itís an unnecessary habit that may harm the childís teeth.
Just as pediatricians offer various opinions, parents, too, have
different feelings about thumb-sucking. Many are unconcerned but do
feel bothered by negative comments they hear from others. Friends,
relatives, and even strangers will criticize a child for
thumb-sucking and try to pressure his parents to stop him. For many
families, this is the only problem connected with the habit.
In other families, thumb-sucking is looked on with ambivalence.
Parents worry about their childís teeth, about how long heíll
continue, about how heíll finally give it up, and about whether they
should try to make him stop. And there are parents who donít want
their child to suck his thumb at all, and worry about how to stop
him right away.
What are parentsí choices? If they notice this habit during their
childís early months, they can try to feed more frequently, which
may satisfy sucking needs. Otherwise, they can accept thumb-sucking
as a natural habit and try to make the best of it even if they donít
like it, or they can try to force the child to stop. This latter
course can have negative consequences for the child, and it is
usually unsuccessful because a thumb, unlike a pacifier, canít be
taken away. If the parents pull a childís thumb out of his mouth,
heíll cry and then most likely will suck his thumb again as soon as
he can. As he gets older, if they paint his thumb with one of the
foul-tasting commercial products sold to discourage thumb-sucking,
heíll feel helpless and may whine, show increased aggression, or
Since sucking provides comfort, the more pressure parents put on
their child to stop, the more attached and dependent on his thumb he
may become. Fearing ridicule and feeling vulnerable, he may depend
more and more on himself and his thumb for comfort. This is not an
attempt to rebel or get back at his parents, although they may see
increased thumb-sucking as a sign of stubbornness or ďbadness.Ē He
has a strong desire to please his parents, but he also has a strong
desire to suck his thumb in order to make he feel better. One four-
year-old who knew her parents disapproved of her thumb-sucking hid
under a table to suck her thumb. Parents who want their child to
stop this habit should try decreasing the pressure they put on him.
This, in turn, may eliminate some of his need to soothe himself.
Another drawback to struggling over thumb-sucking is the bad self-
image a child can eventually develop when he senses that his parents
donít like what heís doing. Parents who try to make their child feel
bad about his habit (donít like that!Ē) May end up having he feel
bad about him? Some parents can remember back to their own child
hood embarrassment and pain over the issue.
The best thing you can do if your child sucks his thumb is accept
the situation and be patient. Try not to discourage him from
thumb-sucking, at least through his preschool years when his need
may be strongest. Usually by age five or six heíll stop because his
friends have stopped, he no longer has the need, or heís
self-conscious about doing it in public. Certainly, by these ages
you and he can come up with a plan and perhaps incentives for
stopping, and you can firmly let him know you want him to give up