All babies are born with a sucking reflex. In fact, many babies begin sucking their thumb while they are in-utero, making for a very cute ultrasound picture. However, when a 4 or 5 year sucks his thumb, parents find this habit frustrating and embarrassing rather than cute.
Is thumb sucking normal? YES! Babies start sucking as soon as they are born. They will suck on a nipple, thumb, fist, finger, or anything else that comes in contact with their mouths, this reflex is important for their survival. Babies need to suck, not only for nutrition, but also as a means of relaxation. In fact the average baby needs 2-3 hours per day in the first few months. Babies associate sucking with feelings of security. As they grow older, it's normal to suck on thumbs and fingers especially when teething. About 9 out of 10 children suck their thumb or fingers in the first year. Over half of thumb or finger suckers stop by age 6 or 7 months. Most will have stopped by age 4 years.
When is thumb sucking a concern? Thumb sucking should be considered normal under the age of 4. However, it is perfectly fine to distract your child from thumb sucking once he or she is over 12 months. If you notice thumb sucking with boredom, give her something to do requiring the use of both hands. Thumb sucking becomes a concern once the child is 6-7 years old because secondary teeth are starting to erupt and thumb sucking can change the shape of your child’s mouth resulting in crooked teeth or an overbite.
How do I eliminate thumb sucking? First help your child give up thumb sucking during the day. Show your child how thumb sucking affects his or her body (calloused finger, gap between teeth, etc) then let him know you will help him stop this habit with gentle reminders. Do not pull the child's hand out of his mouth. Praise you child when you notice that she has not sucked her thumb for a length period of time. Divide the day into morning, afternoon (until dinner), and evening and reward her with a sticker or small prize if she went the entire segment without sucking her thumb. Remember, children suck their thumb because it is soothing, calming, and gratifying and it has become a deeply ingrained habit. There is not very much evidence that painting fingers with pepper sauce or bitter deterrents helps to prevent sucking…it doesn’t take long for the deterrent to be sucked (or washed) away! Children may naturally stop daytime sucking habits once they start school due to peer pressure. Nighttime sucking is a bit more difficult, for it is usually an involuntary process. It may continue as a way of going to sleep. Your child may thumb-suck to calm down when he or she is upset. Try not to worry; most children will eventually stop this habit on their own.