Baby thumb sucking – is it a problem?

Did you know that some babies start sucking their thumb or fingers in the womb? For newborns, sucking is a natural reflex to help them to feed. Sometimes this can develop into thumb sucking as well, which is a normal and very common behaviour – up to 1 in 3 babies do it.

If your baby has started sucking their thumb, and you’re wondering if it’s a habit you need to break, keep reading to find out whether it really is the problem that some parents are led to believe.

Thumb sucking – is it a problem?

Thumb sucking is not only natural, normal, and common, it’s also an easily accessible comforting tool. It can help babies to self-soothe and to feel secure when they’re unsettled or distressed, and it can help them sleep (that’s a huge win for any parent!).

Babies need ‘non-nutritive’ sucking as well as sucking for nutrition. If you’re breastfeeding, you will already know that your baby regularly sucks for comfort. And, it’s the whole reason that dummies or soothers were invented in the first place.

Some babies are just extra ‘sucky’ babies, so it helps to think of it not as a ‘habit’ per se, but a strong instinctive need.

Is it bad for their teeth?

Some experts believe that thumb sucking is only a problem if a child is still doing it when their adult teeth come through at around 6 years onwards. However, by this age, less than 1 in 20 children are still doing it.

If the habit is still present when their adult teeth come through, it may potentially lead to an overbite, a gap between the upper and lower teeth, a narrow palate, or a lisp.

However, many children who suck their thumb go on to have normal, healthy teeth, but whether it causes dental problems or not depends on the child’s development, how they suck their thumb, and how often.

Should the behaviour be stopped?

Most children stop sucking their thumb naturally between 2 and 4 years of age, so it’s really up to you. They will likely stop when they’re ready without you needing to intervene. Acknowledging that it’s not a bad habit, just as using a dummy or feeding to sleep isn’t a bad habit. They’re all normal, biologically natural, and soothing to your baby.

Worrying now about the possibility of trying to wean your child off it when they’re older is not helpful for you or your baby. There are always ways to gently, respectfully, kindly, and gradually support your child to stop thumb sucking at any stage in their development.

How to stop your baby from thumb sucking

If thumb or finger sucking has become problematic for feeding, or for any other reason, and you’ve decided you would like to stop it, here are some strategies that can help:

  • Some parents decide that they would rather offer a dummy instead, because it means they have more control over when their baby uses it, and when and how they take it away.
  • Use distractions during the day. Give them a cuddle or show them a toy when they start sucking.
  • Offer alternative comforting tools, such as rocking, singing, massage, or offer a safe comforter (from 7 months of age).
  • Gently and warmly redirect their hands when they start heading towards their mouth.
  • Breastfeed on demand even when you know it’s for comfort only.
  • Let your baby suck your clean finger instead.

Sucking is a healthy need. When that need is met, it will go away. Babies who get their sucking needs met, whether it’s from their thumb, a dummy, breast, bottle, or your finger, they will seldom become habitual thumb suckers.