Thumb sucking can become a heated issue for parents. “How can I get my child to stop sucking her thumb?” is a common question asked by parents. And there are so many “remedies” on the market to help achieve this goal—bitter nail solutions, thumb wraps, children’s books to coax a child away from the act, and parenting books with numerous strategies. I rarely hear the question, “Why is my child sucking her thumb?” As a psychologist, I wish we would start there.
Yes, I too have heard from pediatric dentists that constant thumb-sucking may impact the teeth, jaws, or roof of the mouth. But I’ve also read sources (e.g., American Dental Association, 2016) that suggest that we shouldn’t be too worried for a young child. And, as noted by the American Dental Association (2016), excessive pressure to halt thumb-sucking can in fact do more harm than good.
Children can be seen sucking their thumbs even before birth in the womb. It is a natural way to self-soothe and relax, and may build a sense of comfort and security in times of stress. Some children gradually develop other modes of self-soothing by the time they reach 4 years of age, especially when they learn to express themselves and connect to others with words and other activities.
But children are not all built the same. Temperaments differ. Some children are born with more intense feelings that are harder to manage. And environments do not have the same impact on all children. Some children relish being surrounded by activity and sounds, while these can overwhelm others. Of course, an especially stressful environment can cause problems for a child, but even a normal level of stress may overwhelm the coping mechanisms of some children.
If a child is over 4 and still wishing to suck her thumb, rather than jumping to eliminate this potentially important source of comfort, I would encourage parents to consider the needs of their individual child.
• Is the thumb-sucking merely a habit which is no longer important as a source of calming?
• Is there something they can modify in the child’s environment to reduce stress?
• Can they help her develop other coping strategies?
• Or should they allow the child to continue sucking the thumb until she is ready to move on?
In some cases, orthodonture may be a more desirable alternative than years of psychotherapy as an adult.