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Thumb sucking: Thumbs-up or Thumbs-down?

There are two forms of sucking: nutritive sucking (i.e., from a breast/bottle to provide nutrition) and non-nutritive sucking (i.e., a thumb or dummy to provide comfort/security). Non-nutritive sucking habits are common, with 80% of young infants and 75% of children aged 2-5 engaging in the behaviour. Research shows that thumb-sucking stimulates receptors in the mouth that provides a release of both physical and psychological tension.

But babies are born to suck. Studies demonstrate that thumb-sucking helps babies to calm & organise their natural biological rhythms. Sucking is an early method of exploring and learning about the world. Babies typically suck their thumb twice as fast as they do at the breast or bottle meaning that it also helps to develop their oral-motor skills. Not all babies show a strong desire for non-nutritive sucking, but for those who do, their thumb is a great way for your baby to soothe themselves. The beauty of a thumb is that they’re always at hand and very difficult to lose!

By the age of 4, most children stop thumb-sucking on their own accord, now having access to more sophisticated emotion-regulation strategies. Yet, even in infancy, some parents actively discourage this behaviour even in infancy due to concerns that it’s a “bad habit” and interferes with feeding, fingernail and/or dental development.

Some evidence suggests using a dummy, but not thumb-sucking, is associated with shorter breastfeeding duration, even among mothers who are highly motivated to breastfeed. Prolonged thumb-sucking may cause problems with the growth and alignment of teeth but children who rest their thumbs passively in their mouths are less likely to experience difficulty than those who suck more vigorously. This is also seen with the use of dummies but some argue that a dummy is easier to ditch than a thumb.

When it comes to thumb-sucking, the ultimate decision-maker is your baby. It is a thumbs up for thumb-sucking if that’s what works for your little one!

References: Ferrante & Ferrante (2015); Staufert Gutierrez & Carungo (2020); da Costa, van den Engel-hoek & Bos (2008)

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