Mar 12, 2011

When Should I stop my child sucking her thumb?

Category: Infants
Posted By: Jane
picture of girl sucking her thumbHi, my name is Tanya and I am a mother of two children, a girl aged 3 and a baby boy. I was unable to breastfeed either child because I am taking immune suppressant medication due to having had a kidney transplant several years before the children were born. Because of this I gave the children a dummy early on. When I stopped my three year old from sucking a dummy she moved on to sucking her thumb and still does so. I wanted to try and stop it before she goes to nursery and I also worry about the development of her teeth, but I wonder what is the right way to do it and when. Can you help?


Hi, Tanya. Thank you for putting such an interesting question into the forum. I am sure there are many mothers who are also considering what to do about thumb-sucking or using a dummy with the start of the new school year approaching.

The main factor to take into account is that the sucking reflex is a very strong, innate reflex that is survival based. If a baby were to be born without a sucking reflex they would struggle to survive. As you can see from the above picture it is one of the earliest reflexes to emerge being often seen within the womb during scans. This puts it along with similar strong biological reflexes such as breathing (which develops later than the sucking reflex) and blinking. As well as this, because it is associated with food, warmth and physical contact it is unsurprising that thumb-sucking or dummy sucking becomes linked with comfort and is therefore used as a self-soothing and comforting practice in children. And on top of all that, in your case, as you were not able to breastfeed your child will have spent less time being able to excersize the sucking reflex as bottles typically let out milk at a much quicker rate than the breast, resulting in reduced time suckling.

So, that's the information. What you decide to do has to be your own decision, certainly there is an important factor in terms of the development of the teeth. The breast does not cause teeth to be pushed forward, being considerably more maleable than a thumb. I would strongly suggest that you check with your dentist as to advice about this part of the equation. If you are advised, however, that it will not adversely affect the second teeth when they appear you are still left with the opinion of the nursery and the generally negative public view of older children sucking their thumbs. It may be that you feel that this is something you can 'face out' or it may be that you don't want either you and your daughter receiving the negative attention that might come your way.

If you decide to wean now, in time for nursery, my suggestion is that you prepare her for the change a few days ahead of time. Talk to your child about stopping, tell her that you understand that it is comforting to her, but that some people disapprove of it. Then you can talk to her about finding a more socially acceptable form of comforting herself when she feels that she needs it. You might like to introduce a favourite toy or blanket and help her to feel that this could replace the comfort of sucking her thumb, or ask her for suggestions as to what else she might feel comforted by. You will probably still have to 'take a stand' and remain firm in the face of crying, tantrums, etc but you will have the comfort of knowing that this isn't a shock to her, you have prepared her for the change and will have a pre-agreed back-up plan for comforting such as a toy. If this is the decision you make it is important to be clear about it. If you waver you will just end up having a series of distressing, unsuccessful battles without achieving anything.

I wish you luck with the strength you need to stand firm, either with your daughter or against the withering stares of disapproving passers by!

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