Thumb sucking is a very normal (and endearing) habit that forms when infants are learning to soothe themselves. Babies are born with sucking reflexes and inevitably find their fingers and thumbs (and feet!) in their mouths. However, it can turn into a tricky thing for parents to manage as children get older.
If a child doesn't give up the habit early enough on their own, it can cause permanent changes to their jaw shape and even affect speech. According to Dr. Mia Finkelston, a board-certified family physician who treats patients virtually via the LiveHealth Online app, thumb sucking "also interferes with the normal development of teeth, which makes orthodontia often necessary."
So when does thumb sucking go from being a great self-soothing device to an unhygienic nightmare? Dr. Finkelston asserted that "thumb sucking is normal in early infancy and, in most cases, disappears as the child becomes more self-sufficient and social once they reach 2 years old." She continued that you should only begin to worry once the habit "interferes with the child's functioning, whether it's physically, emotionally, or socially."
If you do notice that your child is having a hard time giving up their thumb-sucking ways, it's hard to know where to even begin to help them quit. Dr. Finkelston suggests to not treat their habit as a terrible thing. "Instead of paying attention to or correcting the thumb sucking, or even punishing them for it, give attention to the more positive aspects of the child's behavior," she explained. "This will build self-confidence as well as provide the healthy attention and nurturance the child craves as they develop. A child that actively tries to restrain his or her thumb-sucking habit should be given more praise and encouragement. Talk to your doctor about strategies if you are concerned, and do not be afraid to bring this up at your child's well visits even if not asked directly."
Ultimately, each child is different, so make sure to pay attention to your child's cues for when they're ready to walk away from the habit. And just remember, no matter how dire the situation might seem, every kid does eventually grow out of this habit, and yours will too!