Thumb sucking: A child’s delight and a mother’s woe –

Thumb sucking: A child’s delight and a mother’s woe

A baby sucking his thumb or a mouth stuffed with a pacifier (commonly called as dummies) is a very common sight. Babies are fond of sucking on whatever is within their reach, be it a toy, their blanket, your arm, or even your shirt.

Sucking is a natural reflex, important and comes naturally to babies as a part of survival process.

Sucking reflex is triggered when babies press their thumb/ bottle/ mother’s breast against their palate (roof of their mouth). Sometimes the reflex can be quite strong and rapid and be more of a chomping action than sucking.

Majority of the times babies use it to calm themselves, but they exhibit this behaviour even when tired, bored or when they need comforting. This can be referred to as ‘non- nutritive sucking’ (sucking done when not hungry).

Usually the reflex begins to disappear around 6 months of age but their desire for it may not go away. If it does not, it is a matter of concern and not something that can be ignored.

Some babies find their thumbs delicious and just cannot do away without constantly sucking them. Others may be satisfied with pacifiers. Lets know more about these habits, which if not weaned off naturally with age, can lead to a few problems.


 Thumbsucking is a habit which can be seen in an estimated 75 percent of babies and toddlers. Some newborns have a tendency to start sucking their fists/thumb while in the womb and are seen being born with sucking blisters if they suck with high intensity. Regardless of whether your little one started thumb sucking in the womb, acquired a taste of thumb soon after birth, or didn’t start sucking for a while, it’s hard not to worry if your child is stuck with this habit through middle school.

The urge to suck thumb usually decreases after six months of age or once they start eating solid food, but could still be observed when babies feel hungry, afraid, restless, quiet, sleepy and sometimes to soothe their gums during teething.

Around 30 percent of children may continue with thumb-sucking after five years of age which can be primarily attributed to an emotional problem, such as anxiety. Depending on the intensity and frequency of thumb sucking effects of the habit could be as follows:

1- Sore over sucked thumbs: Due to contact with excessive moisture of the tongue and pressure of the teeth, habitual sucking could make the skin of the thumb hard. It may crack, bleed or even get infected (red, swollen tender area where the thumb nail joins the skin).

2- Oral health and speech : Constant pressure from the thumb may push the teeth forward or out of position and can also alter the shape of the child’s jaw from U to a V shape. Once teeth are pushed out of place, it becomes more difficult for the child to pronounce certain sounds and a lisp becomes characteristic. The longer thumb-sucking continues, the more likely it is that orthodontic treatment will be needed .

3- Peer teasing– For some children, this can impose on a child’s social development, especially in the early days of school.

Dummy lovers

Some babies who do not suck their thumbs can be comforted, stimulated or put to sleep through a pacifier.

Things to keep in mind while using a pacifier:

  • Pacifiers interfere with breast feeding patterns if introduced too early. It’s best to wait until your baby is at least a month old. Pacifier sucking can reduce the amount of time your baby spends on your breast.
  • Babies get dependent on pacifiers to fall asleep.
  • Hassle of buying/ washing/ sterilizing pacifiers and an added stress if it is lost.
  • Incidence of thrush(fungal infection) in the baby’s mouth and/or the mother’s nipples (if breastfeeding) can increase.
  • Saliva pooling between the shield of the pacifier and baby’s mouth may irritate the skin and cause dryness..
  • Frequent use could also lead to repeated ear infections as continuous sucking motion opens the ear canals. This allows the entry of bacteria from mouth to ear.

Ways to avoid dependence and stop the habit:

The best way to get rid of this messy habit is to tell your baby to stop themselves.

  • Encourage your child–a hug or praise to show that they’re doing something good by trying to stop might just do wonders. Reward them if the child goes for a certain period without sucking/ being dummy free. Discourage your child to speak with dummy in the mouth.
  • Use distractions– start to withdraw by giving the pacifiers only at sleep time and gradually replace them with a toy or a soft baby blanket or give them a cuddle to distract them from sucking.
  • Try not to nag/shout– if children feel they are being nagged, they may become angry and continue the habit.

Thumb Sucking vs Pacifiers

So, what’s the big argument between thumbs and pacifiers?

Many research studies show that sucking on a pacifier while sleeping, reduces their risk of SIDS (Sleeping Infant Death Syndrome). But there are also advantages to letting your little one suck their thumb. With thumb always available and within reach, your newborn has a built-in way to calm themselves any time they are cranky or need comfort.

Even better, thumbs don’t get lost, so you won’t be losing on your sleep waking up to a crying baby who has lost/ dropped their pacifier in the middle of the night.  Thumbsuckers fall asleep more easily, and can sleep peacefully through the night than infants who do not suck their thumbs.

In the early months, even tiny infants discover that one of life’s little pleasures is right in their hands and under their noses. This  ability of babies’ to use their own body parts for comfort is a sign of interim emotional satisfaction and not long-term psychological disturbance. Nevertheless , thumb/pacifier sucking after a certain age is detrimental and should be discouraged .