Yo, Sucka, Why You Gotta Suck That Thumb? Is Thumb Sucking Really a Problem?

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.)Dad and Griffin on wall, Buzet

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!”

susan and Griffin hikingWait, “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.Griffin with little lizard

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.

In the meantime, suck away my boy, but please, keep the genital sniffing to a minimum. You’re not a dog, after all.D and G watching TV, Letterfrack








19 thoughts on “Yo, Sucka, Why You Gotta Suck That Thumb? Is Thumb Sucking Really a Problem?

  1. I was a thumb sucker 😖 and yes my habit persisted despite many of my parents attempts to dissuade me and I eventually stopped of my own accord at about 11 years old, round about the same time I started to notice the opposite sex. It did some pretty extensive damage and my mom couldn’t afford braces so that wasn’t even an option however it’s never bothered me, people often compliment me on my smile and I’m pretty sure at least half of them are being genuine 😜 would I love straight, picture perfect teeth? Definitely! But so what, I would also love model-long legs and a voice like Celine Dion. I definitely don’t encourage prolonged thumb sucking but I wanted to be a voice to say, *should* it happen anyway it’s not necessarily the end of the world. Life goes on, Hollywood teeth or not.


  2. Hehe this is a great post and made me chuckle about your boy with his hands down his pants, I worked in a nursery and saw this all the time from both boys and girls, they just get curious about whats down their. About the thumb sucking, your right, at a young age it’s not so much of a problem. Again great post and very amusing.


  3. The undesirable things our kids do can seem very important at the moment they’re doing it, needing urgent intervention (if you’re the intervening kind of parent)…until they’re on to the next thing. My grandmother’s generation had a lot going for them and she was clearly one of their elite geniuses. She always said “This too shall pass.”


    • My mom often quotes this – in fact with so much conviction that it seems scriptural. (It’s not apparently, but I had to look it up to check.) Intervention is way overrated. It’s potentially detrimental to the kid and almost certainly exhausting for the parent. Let it lie until it becomes a problem. That’s my parenting philosophy, encompassing everything from squabbling to bath time. Although others may wish that I were a bit more proactive on the bath time. Once a week is okay, no?


  4. I sucked my thumb. When I went to school my mother told me (once, without angst) I would need to stop so I did – no biggie. I did have braces although my teeth were only slightly off vertical. One of my brothers (a non-thumb sucker) had braces too so who knows if my sucking was causal?


    • Tough to say, Cuttlefish. I wasn’t much of a thumb sucker, apparently, yet inherited my mother’s jumbled teeth and required braces. From some of the responses (here and on Facebook), though, it can be very hard indeed to get kids to stop sucking their thumbs. Until it becomes an issue, however, it’s probably best not to make it one.


  5. I am glad you brought that up Matt. Both Yiannis (now 7) and Iliana (almost 5) still suck their thumbs. That is no surprise to me as I sucked my thumb until I was 12 (I was one of the lucky ones, my thumb sucking never caused any dental issues-I have perfectly straight teeth). I tried all sorts of measures to stop Yiannis from sucking his thumb (as N. was freaking out about it) but nothing worked. He doesnt suck it a school but he sucks it quite regularly at home. Now that his new teeth are coming out, I see that it will probably cause an issue…However, I have come to terms with it as the worst thing that can happen is that he will need to wear braces, which of course is not the end of the world. I have explained it to him, he understands it and he will need to ‘suffer’ the consequences. I’d rather have a happy child than an emotionally unstable one. Iliana’s first teeth are completely crooked and the dentist told us that this is going to be permanent, so braces for her as well. Again, happy child vs emotionally unstable.


  6. I had one thumbsucker out of five. The advantage of thumbsucking is that you never have to grope around blindly in the dark looking for a lost thumb. Pacifiers, yes. Thumbs, never. Fortunately my thumbsucker was a girl, had no joystick to fondle, so she used a special blankie for that. And her vanity got the best of her when she was five. She was worried she’d have buck teeth and gave up the thumb on her own.


    • Most kids give it up around that age, apparently. Our son has definitely toned it down a bit – as I wrote, he only sucks his thumb at home, and mostly only when he’s tired. Anyway, thanks for visiting and having a read. Cheers!


  7. Both of my daughters suck(ed) their thumbs/fingers. Both are “older than six.” It is NOW a problem. In fact, out oldest (17) still does (argh) because it cost us $5,000 (braces: triple argh). The dentist even inserted an “appliance” in her upper palate for about 3 months before the braces. No luck. She’ll be buying the next set of braces on her own!


    • I must admit to being a bit confused, Jon. Your 17 year old daughter still sucks her thumb? If so, then yes, that’s an issue. I was never much of a thumb sucker, but I did have braces and I know they’re no fun (even apart from the expense.) What methods have you tried to wean your daughters off the sucking?


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