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The Truth About Thumb-Sucking

Blog The Truth About Thumb-Sucking

Some parents feel stressed, wondering how they can help their child break this habit as soon as possible, while others feel the action is a soothing one that shouldn’t be banished right away.


Thumb-sucking can be a hot button issue in many homes that have young children. Some parents feel stressed, wondering how they can help their child break this habit as soon as possible, while others feel the action is a soothing one that shouldn’t be banished right away.

So, who’s right? While the issue often depends of your child’s specific circumstances, one new study reveals that science may be on the side of those who favor their thumbs. In a recent study, kids who bit their nails or sucked their thumbs were actually less likely to have allergies to common culprits like pollen, cats and dust mites. The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, followed 1,000 individuals from birth to age 38. By the age of 13, those kids who bit their nails or sucked their thumbs were 33 percent less likely to react to common allergens and by age 32, it was even higher at 39 percent. The reason: Scientists say these kids were building immunity to various bacteria at a young age—by literally putting them in their mouth. The early years are critical for kid’s immune systems and by exposing them to a variety of dirt, germs and the like, it helped them later in life.

“This is an incredible study – it shows that what we commonly thought to be a vice may, in fact, be protective,” explains Rebecca M. Dixon, MD, a pediatrician at Indiana University Health. “The Pediatrics article is in line with other studies that show that those children who grow up with pets in the home, also have less allergies.” All of this is in line with the too-clean theory. Kids who aren’t exposed to things when they are young, may be more likely to have a problem with those very things as they get older.”

Parents often try and swiftly break their kids of the thumb-sucking habit, but according to Dr. Dixon, they should just let it be. “You can try many treatments, however, your child will stop when they are ready. The only bad thing about thumb sucking is that your child could be allowing viruses and bacteria into his mouth through the act,” says Dr. Dixon. However, as this new study shows, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Yes, your child might be exposed to potential sickness and germs, but they also are getting an immunity booster and ultimately a lower risk for allergies in the future.

If your child is entering kindergarten and still sucking his thumb, many parents feel their kids may be bullied or teased about this habit. Talk to your child, Dr. Dixon suggests. Explain that the other kids might point out the thumb-sucking as children often point out actions they see as different or unusual. Don’t pressure your child to stop, but by talking to him about it, your child may stop on his own. In fact, the AAP notes that peer pressure (other kids commenting on thumb-sucking) and not parent pressure, is often what makes kids finally kick this habit.

However, if you want to try and get your child to stop, the AAP notes these are some helpful ways. 

  • If your child is sucking her thumb out of boredom (or when she’s hungry or tired) keep her hands busy at these times. Have her play cats in the cradle string games with a friend or give her simple toys like tops to spin or balls to bounce.
  • Praise and gentle reminders throughout the day are great positive re-enforcements.
  • Awards can also be helpful. Create a chart and each time your child goes a full day or night without thumb sucking he gets a star. After five stars he gets to pick out a new toy or have lunch at a favorite restaurant.  

-- By Judy Koutsky 

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