Some babies suck their thumbs more
than others, but the fact remains that all babies do. This does not seem
much of a consolation for anxious parents who worry that their baby has
formed a nasty habit that will make her the butt of jokes and may even
result in displaced or damaged teeth. These parents should remember that
thumb-sucking comes naturally to a baby whether it is because she is hungry,
seeking comfort, or just exploring her body. Do not pull your baby's
thumb out of her mouth every time she puts it into her mouth. This
is definitely not the way to deal with thumb-sucking. This approach could
backfire and actually result in the development of a thumb-sucking habit.
Parents should keep in mind that thumb-sucking is a habit that disappears
of its own volition, gradually petering out between the ages of three and
Hunger and thumb-sucking
One rationale behind thumb-sucking is that when a baby has not had its fill of sucking at the breast or bottle, it instinctively turns towards its thumb. Dr. David Levy found that babies who were fed every three hours did not suck their thumbs as avidly as those who were fed every four hours.
However, some babies do not display this habit irrespective of their feeding schedule. On the other hand, some babies have been observed to suck their thumbs in the delivery room. Others start right from their days in the womb and may even be born with sucking blisters on their arms and hands.
Thumb-sucking need not be cause for
concern if your baby just sucks her thumb for a few minutes before mealtimes.
It is because she is hungry. However, if the baby reaches for her
thumb immediately after feeding or snacks on her thumb constantly between
meals, it is a sign that you need to distract her from thumb-sucking. Let
her have a surfeit of sucking at the breast, bottle or a pacifier. Remember
that it is important that thumb-sucking be controlled right at the beginning,
not after it has become a well-entrenched habit.
Thumb-sucking and breastfeeding
It has been observed that generally breastfed babies are less likely to suck their thumbs. This is because breastfeeding usually satisfies the baby's need to suck. It is the baby who decides when she is ready to let go of the nipple. The mother cannot tell when her breasts are empty.
Ordinarily, a baby sucks most of
the milk from the mother's breast in a space of 5 or 6 minutes. Sucking
beyond this point is just to satisfy the craving to suck. If a breastfed
baby sucks her thumb, allow her to nurse for a longer period of time. If
a baby suckles at both the breasts while feeding and still sucks her thumb,
the mother could try feeding her from only one breast the next time, allowing
her to nurse to her heart's content. If this does not work, increase the
duration for which the baby sucks at the first breast and then allow her
to suck at the second breast for as long as she pleases.
Thumb-sucking and bottlefed babies
Thumb-sucking develops in the average
bottle-fed baby when she can finish a bottle in 10 minutes rather than
20. This happens because as the baby grows older she becomes stronger,
and the nipples become weaker. During the first six months, parents should
attempt to slow down the pace of bottle-feeding so that the baby takes
around 20 minutes. Keeping more of a vacuum in the bottle and buying new
nipples with smaller holes can do this. However, if the hole is too small,
the baby may think it is too much of an effort and stop sucking altogether.
Cutting down on feedings
As a baby grows older, it is natural
that she does not need to be fed as often. However, if she has a habit
of sucking her thumb, it is better to think twice before reducing the number
of feedings. In all likelihood, her sucking needs are still not being met.
She may have begun to sleep through her last feed before you turn in for
the night. However, it may still be a good idea to wake her up and see
whether she is willing to feed.
Teething and thumb-sucking
Babies who are teething have a habit
of chewing on their thumbs, fingers or hands. This probably helps them
relieve the pressure off their gums. Parents should try not to confuse
this with a thumb-sucking habit. A baby, who has a habit of sucking her
thumb, will thumb-suck one minute and chew on it the next when she is teething.
What about the baby's teeth?
It is a fact that thumb-sucking can
result in the baby's upper front teeth being pushed forward and the lower
teeth back. The extent to which the teeth are displaced will depend on
how long the baby sucks her thumb and how she positions her thumb. This
displacement of teeth is not permanent, i.e. it only affects the baby's
milk teeth. The child's permanent teeth come in around the age of six.
So as long as thumb-sucking is curtailed before the age of six, there will
be no permanent damage to the child's teeth.
Six months old and still sucking her thumb
As mentioned earlier, babies have
an instinctive urge to suck, but this urge normally dies down naturally
by the time the baby is three or four months old. If your baby sucks her
thumb habitually beyond this age, she is doing it to seek comfort. Such
babies when lonely, tired, bored or frustrated, resort to thumb-sucking.
This is the baby's way of coping with growing up. She regresses to early
infancy when something as simple as sucking her thumb made her happy. However,
it is extremely rare that a child will begin thumb-sucking for the first
time at 6 months or one year.
The first thing to remember, even if it seems hard to believe, is that thumb-sucking generally subsides of its own accord. It normally stops before the appearance of the second teeth. It disappears in fits and starts. It decreases rapidly, but returns when the child feels the need for some additional comfort. The good news is that eventually it will go for good. It is too much to hope that the child will kick the habit before she is three. Children usually outgrow thumb-sucking between the ages of three and six.
If your child occasionally sucks
her thumb, but generally seems happy and well-adjusted, there is no cause
for concern. However, thumb-sucking can be an indication of maladjustment
or lack of love. Parents should try to identify what is bothering the child
and then set it right if possible. May be your child needs companionship,
or may be you are being too restrictive or not providing enough stimulation
and distraction. There could be any number of reasons.
Tips on dealing with habitual thumb-suckers
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