How to Know if Thumbsucking is Harmful or Helpful
Thumbs naturally find their way into the mouths of babes and often stay there for years. Thumbsucking is a boon to babies but bothers onlookers and dentists. So what’s a poor thumbsucker to do? Can a baby and her thumb find happiness together without public censure? Thumbsucking can be helpful or harmful. Learn the difference.
When Thumbsucking Is Helpful
Some babies are born thumbsuckers. Ultrasound pictures show babies sucking their thumbs in the privacy of the womb. In many babies, the need to suck is not satisfied by bottle-feeding or breastfeeding alone, and they learn to suck on the ever-present thumb for comfort. In the early months, even tiny infants discover that one of life’s little pleasures is right in their hands and under their noses. We consider the ability of babies’ to use their own body parts for comfort as a sign of emotional health, not a psychological disturbance. In fact, some veteran baby comforters even help their babies find their thumbs to self-quiet. What’s all the fuss about? Whose thumb is it anyway?
Some babies seem unsatisfied after bottle-feeding. They’ve had enough milk, but not enough sucking. One advantage of the breast is that it can still be sucked on even after the feeding is over. This way baby can get the sucking he needs without over-filling his tummy. But there are times when the breasts’ owner has had enough and a few babies still need pacifying. If you don’t feel you can handle letting baby pacify on your breast, let him suck on your finger, and eventually, if he doesn’t discover them on his own, you can direct his thumb or fingers into his mouth. The seemingly insatiable desire to suck is there for a reason.
Thumbsucking to Soothe
Sucking mellows the fussy baby, helping to organize the otherwise disorganized bio-rhythms of a newborn. Some babies need more mellowing than others. Our high-need baby was the only one of ours to suck her thumb. We thought it was sweet to see her snuggled up with her thumb while she slept. She started at three months and quit on her own at five months – a very uneventful thumb weaning. Martha was careful to breastfeed her frequently so that the thumb did not become a substitute for the breast. Sucking at the breast is more than eating to a baby or toddler. They learn that the comforting they get helps them relax. A child who has gotten attached to her thumb will tell you she needs it to help her relax.
When Thumbsucking Can Be Harmful
While most mothers, for practical reasons, give infant thumbsucking their thumbs-up approval, some dentists vote thumbs down. While this harmless habit subsides without concern or intervention in most infants by the age of two, some children increase their thumbsucking to such frequency and intensity that it becomes a social and dental problem.
Thumbs In, Teeth Out
In the first two to four years, don’t worry about thumb and teeth not getting along. Seldom does thumbsucking harm teeth in the child under four, and it usually subsides by this age anyway. But habitual thumbsucking can be harmful at age three or four or older and is a reason to start putting money aside for the orthodontist, especially if the child already has a hereditary overbite or protruding upper gum. Or, you can start thinking of ways to get that offending thumb out of the child’s mouth and into his pocket. Because of the way the thumb is forced against the inside of the upper front teeth, thumbsucking can cause overbite (buck teeth) and other dental malocclusions. If neither your child’s doctor nor his dentist is worried about the thumbsucking, you shouldn’t worry either.
Habitual sucking is hard on the skin of the thumb. Spending too much time between the moisture of the tongue and the pressure of the teeth causes over-sucked thumbs to look like one long callus; others crack and bleed. Infections can also occur. Watch out for red, swollen tender skin where the thumbnail joins the skin.
Toddlers don’t ridicule their thumbsucking peers because thumbsucking is a standard operating procedure for children under two. But the older the sucker the more likely she’ll get teased about her thumb-in-mouth “disease.” In most children, the fact is that thumbsucking, like bedwetting, doesn’t reflect a psychological disorder. It’s just a habit — though unsightly to some older children and adults. Don’t fret about a happy thumbsucker who is gregarious and has a good self-image — this thumb will soon leave the mouth. But some suckers never show an unobstructed view of their smile; it’s as if their nose has grown a fist. They prefer sucking their thumbs to relating to peers. This scene is socially unacceptable and the thumb and its owner may be teased continually about being a “baby.”
Thumbs v.s. Pacifiers
Babies would vote for thumbs. They are always available, taste familiar, don’t get lost in the night, and don’t fall on the floor. Dentists would vote for pacifiers. Children don’t use them like crowbars against their upper teeth, and they can be “lost” – permanently. Even for those who dislike the way “these things” obstruct the view of a baby’s face, it’s hard not to like the quieting effect of the silicone plug. All babies suck their thumbs at some time. Most outgrow it, and if their sucking needs are appropriately met in early infancy, they seldom carry the thumb-sucking habit into childhood.
Related article, read 12 Ways to Stop Thumbsucking for Good