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Why Do Babies Suck Their Thumbs and What Can You Do About It?

You often see babies with their thumb in their mouth. It looks adorable, watching them chew their fingers as they stare at you with their curious eyes. Usually, parents worry about the hygiene issues related to thumb sucking, and soon, children learn to stop sucking their thumbs.

But have you wondered why babies suck their thumbs in the first place?

The Womb?

Your baby might have learnt to suck his thumb in the womb, as early as the beginning of the second trimester into being conceived. In fact, thumbsucking in the womb is even a good sign. Babies start to suck their thumb in the womb the minute their arm can reach their mouth. It gives them a source of comfort.

In fact, some parents catch their babies sucking the thumb on their ultrasound scans!

Natural Instincts

What’s more, babies are born with a natural rooting and sucking reflex. Reflexes are involuntary actions that are responses to certain stimulus.

- The rooting reflex helps the baby move its mouth when you stroke near the mouth. This helps the baby find your breast to start feeding.

- The sucking reflex helps the baby feed once it ‘roots’ and finds your breast.

Thumbsucking is related to these natural tendencies of your baby. The baby derives a source of comfort from these reflexes so they tend to put their thumbs or fingers into their mouths - even when they are in the womb!

- Sucking their thumb also helps a baby soothe himself during a situation that may be stressful - when they’re scared or introduced to new situations for example.

- They also suck their thumbs when they’re hungry, tired or bored - thumbsucking acts like a stress-relief for a baby, and babies realise that at an early age and continue the habit.

How Long Does It Last?

Most infants stop sucking their thumbs around the ages of 2 to 4 years. Most babies give up the habit even before the age of 1 year.

By the age of 4 years, most kids would have lost the habit. Even if they don’t do so, they stop the habit once they attain school age and start to interact with same-age peers who don’t suck their thumbs.

When Should I Be Worried About It?

Thumbsucking after the age of 4 years should be dealt with carefully. Be careful. Understand that your child may be doing this due to a feeling of stress or insecurity and try to slowly get them to quit the habit.

Thumbsucking is a concern once the permanent teeth start appearing - which is usually around the age of 6-7 years - because it can affect the dental alignment, or cause a crossbite. But to avoid waiting so long, try to slowly wean your child off the habit around the age of 6-9 months when their first teeth start to appear.

Tips To Stop Thumbsucking

Usually, children stop thumbsucking by themselves, but if you want to start weaning them off the habit, you might want to keep a few things in mind:

Observe their thumbsucking habit

If they are aggressively sucking their thumb, then you might have to start looking for alternatives like a blanket or teddy bear that will make them feel secure and stop the sucking reflex. Otherwise, you can wait until they are a year old - they stop all by themselves around this age.

Check for Triggers

See if your child’s thumbsucking increases in certain situations. Usually, children suck their thumb when they’re stressed or bored or if they’re hungry between meals. So identifying such situations can help you act accordingly.

Say “No"

When your child is slightly older - around the age of 1 year or more, they can understand your “no”, so gently tell them not to suck their thumb every time you catch them in the habit. Avoid scolding however, because it only scares or stresses the baby out, making them more dependent on it.

Use Distractions

Distract your child with toys or show them things outside when they seem about to suck their thumbs. Often, babies suck their thumbs due to boredom or stress, so distracting them in these situations can help stop them from sucking their thumb.

Remember that thumb sucking is usually a call for comfort and safety, so make sure that your baby feels safe before trying to wean them off the habit. It might be a concern in terms of hygiene, but be patient and gentle while getting your child to quit the habit. Speak to your doctor about effective and safe ways to do so. 

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