(This post was originally featured on the Taking Cara Babies blog)
When you have a baby, you dream of the day that you can snuggle up with them and read a book. In that fantasy, you read every word on each page while your sweet child stares back at you listening intently.
One night, I heard the familiar cry and rolled out of bed, but before I could get to his crib, the crying just stopped! I checked the monitor and couldn’t believe my eyes…he found his thumb! I was beyond relieved that he found a way to easily calm during the night and give us both some much needed rest. But then, the worry kicked in: ”Will my child suck his thumb until middle school? How much are braces going to cost? Will this delay his speech? Can I give my own child speech therapy?”
As a mother and pediatric speech-language pathologist, I have heard every opinion under the sun pertaining to thumbsucking. As one mom dreads the day her baby finds her thumb (because she is already anticipating future speech therapy and orthodontic bills), another mom is doing a happy dance when her baby finds his thumb at 2 am.
The truth is that thumbsucking has both pros and cons, and there’s no need to worry about breaking this habit just yet. Babies are born with the need to suck. Like Cara talks about in her pacifier blog, non-nutritive sucking has many benefits! Sucking is a natural reflex that gives babies and toddlers a sense of security. Because non-nutritive sucking releases endorphins, it has a calming effect, can reduce stress and, let’s be honest, it’s adorable.
Let’s take a closer look into the pros and cons of thumbsucking:
THUMBS UP (PROS)
Easy and accessible
Babies have a tool that encourages sleep on hand (literally)
Lower maintenance than pacifiers
Possibly lowers the risk of environmental allergies
THUMBS DOWN (CONS)
Possible impact on teeth or facial structures
Possible speech and language delays
Challenging to eliminate when it’s time
Social stigma as kids get older
I want to give you peace of mind as a speech-language pathologist and a mama of a thumbsucker myself. Don’t worry about your baby thumbsucking…YET. Many children will stop on their own, whether from peer/sibling influence or just growing out of the habit. However, if you are a mama like me with a nearly 4-year-old thumbsucker, then it’s time to make a plan. Around 4 years old, it does become very important to stop thumbsucking to avoid the long-term consequences.
So when the time comes to eliminate thumbsucking, stop twiddling your thumbs and make an elimination plan. Here are some of the important things to include:
- Set clear goals with your child. Start small and make them achievable. (For example: I will not suck my thumb while in the car.)
- Work toward eliminating thumbsucking during awake time first. Then, move toward elimination at bedtime and during sleep.
- Avoid scolding your child for thumbsucking.
- Consistently remind your child in a gentle and loving way to remove their thumb from their mouth. (“Oops. I see that thumb. Let’s take it out.”)
- Praise your child for not thumbsucking. (“You are doing amazing. I’m so proud of you.”)
- Consider offering your child an incentive like a sticker or token chart.
- Offer a replacement activity. (Example- If your little one often sucks his thumb in the car, try offering an activity book or small toy to keep those hands busy.)
- Use a tool to help them stop (if needed):
A good rule of thumb is to start eliminating this behavior around the time your child is turning 4 years old. Research shows that prolonged or frequent oral habits (e.g. thumb/finger sucking and pacifier use) can negatively impact a child’s speech and language development. If you are having difficulty helping your little one stop sucking or if you feel like your child’s oral habit has caused a speech or language delay, Speech Sisters can help! Our mission at Speech Sisters is to empower parents. You have the power to help make changes in your child’s speech and language abilities, and we can give you the tools you need.
But, if your baby recently started thumbsucking, don’t let it scare you! Remember, thumbsucking has many pros and may be exactly what he or she needs during this developmental time. Allow your little one to have that comfort and go back to sleep!