Thumb Sucking in Babies or Children: Is It OK?

Here at The Sleep Teacher, we get ALOT of emails from panicked Mum's because their little one has all of a sudden started sucking their thumb. This is really common in young babies and something we see all the time when a little one has either had their dummy removed, been unswaddled or is learning to self settle. As sleep consultants we know that this is normal and do have some advice around this, however we thought it was time to call upon the real experts in oral developments. Below you will find a guest blog post from @nourished.babes founder and speech pathologist Jamie who will share all her insights into thumb sucking. Thumb-sucking is not unlike many other popular topics discussed in mother’s groups, the information shared about it is widely varied and not always well researched, it is influenced by personal opinion and usually doesn’t considered the child holistically. So why is it such a hot topic? Like most of the topics we worry about as parents, we are worried about the implications. Parents are commonly concerned about the effect of thumb-sucking on the mouth and teeth, its effect on speech development and its implications in regard to social norms (not wanting their child to look or feel different from others their age). First of all, it is helpful to understand that sucking and thumb-sucking is a normal part of infant development and can be seen as early as in utero! The research shows that most children grow out of thumb sucking by about 3 years of age. Ok, tell me more about the effects on dentition? Research indicates the impact of thumb sucking on dentition is minor in children under 3 years but beyond 4 years the effects on dentition, muscle and function are no longer minor. If the growth of the mouth, jaw, teeth and face are affected by long-term thumb-sucking/sucking then the function can be affected. The flow on effect is that speech and feeding are likely to be impacted. If your little one is still thumb/finger sucking over 3, please consider whether there is an underlying reason for its persistence with the help from those with experience in the area. Underlying reasons for persistence over 3 years of age may include sleep difficulties, breathing difficulties, eating difficulties (including reflux) etc. When your little one is 2 and under, you can reduce the risk of thumb sucking persisting beyond this age by creating opportunities for your child to develop age appropriate, normal feeding and oral motor milestones. You can do this by offering your little one age-appropriate textures (a wide range of textures that involve biting, chewing etc) and supporting their transition from one texture to another and from one oral motor skill to another (open cup drinking and straw drinking with a recommended straw-cup). You can also encourage safe mouthing opportunities, offering them a range of different mouthing toys/tools to explore and play with. Over the age of two, you can gently and slowly encourage your little one to reduce the times they have their thumb in their mouth and gently encourage them to save their thumb for sleep time. If they are really upset by this, don’t worry too much, let them be and revisit it in a month or two. The action of sucking (whether it be thumb, finger or pacifier/dummy, lip or object sucking), or what we call non-nutritive sucking (where sucking occurs but the individual isn’t receiving nourishment) has many benefits. To name a few, it produces a number of hormones such as dopamine, endorphins (natural pain reliever), serotonin (the feel-good hormone), it also calms the nervous system which helps with self-regulation when settling, relaxing, sleeping, organising and focusing. Given sucking provides so much for a growing little mind and body, we need to be measured in when and how we discourage it. Do the benefits out-weigh the risks under 3 years? The research indicates, yes, that the benefits of thumb-sucking do out-weigh the risks. Come preschool age, it truly is a balancing act, there is no one size fits all. We need to be mindful and sensitive about what is best for the individual child and seek advice and create a plan that is individualised. Jamie Williams Certified Practicing Speech Pathologist Nourished.babes If you would like more information you can contact The Sleep Teacher or Nourished babes on instagram @thesleepteacher or @nourished.babes
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