By Gary Pransky, M.D.
Family Medicine and Geriatrics in Winthrop, MA
Many kids suck their thumbs to self-soothe. Dr. Pransky says it’s normal and nothing to worry about for most kids.
“Stop it. That’s for babies!”
I can’t tell you how many times in my 30 years as a doctor I’ve heard parents and caregivers say this to little ones who were sucking their thumbs or clutching security blankets.
If you’re worried that thumb-sucking will cause long-term dental problems or that your child will be carrying a threadbare blanket or tattered Teddy bear to their high school graduation, don’t be. These childhood self-soothing techniques are nothing to be concerned about, and to be honest, may continue through grade school.
The world can be a scary place for us adults, let alone our little ones. The security that kids get from thumb-sucking usually is more beneficial than perceived negative effects. Thumb-sucking, in fact, often starts before birth. Plenty of ultrasound images show babies with their thumbs in their mouths and their hands curled around their little faces.
Let’s take a look at three of the main concerns I hear from parents who want their child to stop thumb-sucking or carrying around a blankie or treasured lovey.
1. Does thumb-sucking mess up children’s teeth?
Don’t worry about thumb-sucking harming your child’s teeth or gums before the permanent teeth come in. It won’t hurt the baby teeth.
When permanent teeth come in, the thumb can start pushing the permanent front teeth out, leading to an overbite or other problems that may require a visit to the orthodontist. Most children stop sucking their thumbs on their own before the permanent teeth come in, but if you are concerned about your child’s thumb-sucking, talk to their dentist.
I remind parents that it’s easier to fix the teeth than to fix the person. Take nighttime, for example – it’s dark, and your child is alone. If he or she needs to suck their thumb to soothe themselves, wouldn’t you rather get braces later than have a child who is constantly stressed at night and exhausted during the day?
2. Does thumb-sucking spread germs?
Let’s face it: Most kids are germ magnets. When they’re little, they put their hands and mouths on everything. This improves as they get older, but even big kids forget to wash their hands sometimes. There are a few steps you can take to keep germs from getting into their mouths and to keep their blankies from becoming a bacteria cesspool:
- Make handwashing a habit: Teach your children to wash their hands when they wake up, before and after meals, before and after naps, and before going to bed. Have them sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while soaping up, washing, and rinsing their hands. This is fun for bigger kids who know the song, but also for little kids who love to hear Mom and Dad sing for them.
- Routinely wash security objects: To keep lovies relatively clean, choose a day of the week to wash them. Try doing it during your child’s bath time, and tell them their friend also is getting a bath. Or find a fun game or activity to distract them while the blankie or toy is in the washer and dryer.
It can be hard for kids to be apart from something they consider an extension of themselves – think about how lost you feel without your smartphone!
3. Does thumb-sucking make children look silly?
Most of us think babies and toddlers look cute sucking their thumbs or snuggling a blankie. But parents often find the cute factor ends when the child goes to school, which opens the door to potential ridicule by classmates.
We all have things we do when we get upset, whether it’s diving into a bowl of chocolate ice cream, biting our nails, or going for a run. These are all forms of self-soothing, and they help take our minds off what’s bothering us. Thumb-sucking or snuggling a security blanket or lovey is no different.
When kids are little, they just want to be with you. When they can’t be with you, such as at bedtime or daycare, they need something to help them feel less alone and less worried. Thumb-sucking or hugging a beloved blanket or stuffed animal helps them deal with their emotions on their own, which is an important life skill.
Children tend to do these things subconsciously. If you take their thumb out of their mouth at night, they put it back in automatically. It’s natural, and kids will stop on their own when they’re ready. Until then, let them self-soothe in the way that best helps them.
If you are concerned about your child’s self-soothing behaviors, talk with their physician. You may find you’re worrying for nothing!
Tags: children's health, family health, family medicine, pediatrics, Winthrop