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In: home > Newborn Care / Related Articles for Newborn Care / Thumb-sucking


newborn-care Related Articles for Newborn Care
Thumb sucking is very common in babies. Babies suck their thumbs as they find comfort in it and feel secure. Thumb sucking can be a signal for hunger. Thumb sucking can become a habit if not prevented early. Here's a guide on thumb sucking.


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 six.

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.

Tackling thumb-sucking

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

  • Don't make your child feel conscious about sucking her thumb.
  • Don't nag your child.
  • Don't worry about it. Your child will pick up on your concern, which will in turn cause her to worry.
  • Try to distract her with a toy when she begins to suck her thumb. But do it as subtly as possible or she will catch on.
  • You can try bribing or rewarding an older child for not sucking her thumb.
  • Corrective measures such as restraints, elbow mitts, bad-tasting substances painted on the fingers, etc. usually backfire. Pulling the child's thumb out of his mouth will only serve to make him rebel against this restraint and encourage him to continue the habit
  • Encourage the child to give up the habit in a friendly, non-judgemental manner.

This article is based on the views of Dr. Spock

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geeta.1 year ago
Try cotton thumbguards....cost effective and easy solution. can find it on olx/quikr too in India
Suresh Raina.3 years ago
it is quite possible to prevent this habit. when babies are made to be feel loved and secure, then they do not suck thumb. Telling her why it is bad in a playful manner helps in kicking off the habit.
Aahana.3 years ago
I ensured that my baby didn't get the habit of thumb sucking. whenever she put her thumb in her mouth, i would gently pull it out while making funny faces. She got distracted and then did not suck thumb.
McDume.6 years ago
hooray for Dr. Spock! It's wonderful for a child to be able to comfort him/herself without the parent shoving a bottle or pacifier in the mouth, which just teaches him/her to stuff her feelings.
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