Our four-year-old son has some interesting habits.
When he was two, one of his teachers at his preschool pulled me aside and told me, her face appropriately grim and tone appropriately grave, that our boy frequently stuck his hand down the front of his pants, in class. She then regarded me with eyebrows arched, apparently awaiting a gasp of either shock or shame – or both.
“You mean like this?” I asked, shoving my hand into my pants and gently cupping my scrotum.
Oh come on now, even I’m not that shameless – or indecent. I simply gazed back at her, waiting for her to make some sort of point. We looked at each other for several moments. Her eyebrows inched up a bit more.
“Uhm, okay!” I said finally – perhaps with a bit too much gusto – shrugged my shoulders, and collected my kid. He was two. Who cared if he put his hands in his pants? It’s not like he was whipping out his Willy Wonka and whacking the other children with it. He didn’t bite, or whine, he didn’t smack the other kids or steal their toys. Perhaps because he was so pleased with petting his wee little bits from time to time. Who knows?
I didn’t bother to tell her that at home he liked to fondle his lil’ buddy – then sniff his fingers. He still does, in fact. Overall, I do not approve of this particular behavior. It has a fairly large ‘ewwww’ factor. But nor do I chastise him about it because again, who cares, as long as he doesn’t do it in public. (If he’s still doing it in ten years, though, it will be time to sit down and have a chat.)
His other primary habit is sucking his thumb while simultaneously using his forefinger to probe the depths of his nostrils. Oftentimes it’s both – left hand down pants, right hand double-teaming his mouth and nose. Perhaps one day he’ll be either an andrologist or an otolaryngologist. Could go either way at this point.
“Many children who suck their thumbs or fingers do so while holding a treasured object, such as a security blanket,” says the Mayo Clinic website. Or, in this case, the “treasured object” is his undersized joystick. He sucks his thumb mostly when he’s tired and, as far as I know, never at school.
So, is it a problem when kids suck their thumbs? Or more precisely, can it cause potential problems?
“Amy must stop sucking her thumb! She is damaging her upper palate and distorting her teeth,” shrieks a presumably fictitious dentist in an advertisement for Thumbguard UK.
“With those words ringing in her ears, Cathy Sawbridge left her dentist where she had taken her 2 year old daughter for a check up.”
Poor Cathy. “She tried all the old techniques: foul tasting paint, star charts and rewards, nagging her… All with little or no success!”
Wait, “foul tasting paint’? Exactly what kind of paint was Cathy slathering Amy’s thumb with? Perhaps it was the ringing of the words in her ears that led her to forget that, generally speaking, kids shouldn’t ingest paint. But for only £49.99 (about $80), Cathy could break her daughter of the heroin habit that was her thickest digit.
“Amy” was two. Will sucking your thumb at that age cause more significant damage than sucking paint? Of course it’s in the interest of companies which hawk anti-thumbsucking devices to play up the dangers. But what are the dangers?
First let’s look at the why. It’s pretty simple. Mammalian babies are born with a sucking reflex in order to receive milk from their mothers. Without it we’d quickly starve and die. Which would be bad. As children grow, they associate the sucking action with the physical reward of food, but also with comfort and calm, and will substitute the nipple – of either a breast or a bottle – with anything that comes their way: a pacifier, the corner of a blanket or, more commonly and conveniently, a thumb.
According to the American Dental Association, most children can suck their thumbs without adverse effects until adult teeth begin to appear, usually around the age of six.
So Amy, at age two, had three or four years of happy, carefree sucking ahead of her before her mom decided to slap a “soft, clear or white and non-toxic medical grade plastic material” on her thumb.
The Mayo Clinic states that “thumb sucking isn’t usually a concern until a child’s permanent teeth come in. At this point, thumb sucking might begin to affect the roof of the mouth (palate) or how the teeth line up — especially if the thumb sucking is aggressive.”
They suggest that you “consider stepping in if:
- Your child sucks his or her thumb frequently or aggressively after age 4 or 5
- The thumb sucking is causing dental problems, such as the upper front teeth tipping toward the lip
- Your child is embarrassed about the thumb sucking”
Peer pressure in school generally eliminates the urge the stick that digit in the mouth and give it a thorough tongue-lashing, but “even when the habit lingers past infancy, thumb-sucking is rarely something to be concerned about. It doesn’t indicate that a child has emotional problems or that he will still be sucking his finger when he’s a teenager,” says assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine Sabine Hack.
However, “if a child who is older than 5 or 6 is still sucking his thumb and having difficulty stopping, parents ought to think about what they can do to help him,” Hack says.
I won’t go into it here, but just Google “thumb sucking,” and I promise you that you’ll have an avalanche of advice.
So what does this mean for the average parent with the average thumb-sucking stooge? Until the age of maybe 5 or 6, don’t sweat it. If you’re “Cathy,” let “Amy” suck away for another year or three. If your 16-year-old daughter can’t pass driver’s education because she can’t keep her hands in the 10 and 2 position due to one of her thumbs being ensconced in her mouth then yes, you’ve got an issue there.
It’s clear from the torrent of results a simple internet search yields that this is an issue of concern for many parents, and the companies with photos of suspiciously attractive “dentists” that want to sell you their products know this. (The dentist I had in adolescence had horrifically bad breath. Trust a dentist with bad breath just as you’d trust a hair stylist with bad hair.)
As always, think about the issue rationally for a moment, do your research, ignore the (however well-intentioned) advice of parents around you, and come to your own conclusions about the best course of action.
Do I worry about my son’s thumb sucking? Not at all. Will I consider it a problem if it continues into the next few years? Yes, because that’s the reasonable, rational thing to do.