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Thumb Sucking for sleep and Your Baby's Development: What You Need to Know


Many babies develop a habit of sucking their thumb or fingers for comfort, especially when they are tired or upset. While thumb-sucking can be a natural and harmless behavior, many parents wonder whether it is okay for their baby to rely on this habit to fall asleep. In this article, we'll discuss the possible benefits and drawbacks of thumb-sucking for sleep and what the scientific literature has to say about it.


The Science

Thumb and finger sucking, along with pacifier use, is referred to as "non-nutritive sucking" by researchers. Thumb and finger sucking usually begins during the first month of a babies' life. There is some scientific literature to suggest that thumb sucking in infants can have benefits. For example, it can provide comfort and help infants to self-soothe and it can help toddlers self-regulate. Thumb and finger sucking is a sleep association that has also been associated with longer sleep duration and fewer night wakings compared to pacifier use (see our blog on pacifiers here). In addition, there is some evidence that pacifier use reduces breastfeeding duration, but this doesn't seem to be true for thumb sucking.

It is important to know that prolonged thumb sucking can also have negative consequences. Thumb sucking beyond 4 years of age can cause malocclusion, which is a dental issue where the teeth do not line up properly. Thumb sucking may also be associated with speech delay, although the evidence for that is mixed. Finally, persistent thumb sucking can cause blisters on the thumb, which can be uncomfortable for a child. As a result of the negative consequences of prolonged thumb sucking, it should be discouraged after age four. In most cases, children spontaneously stop sucking their thumbs between age two and four making the consequences of thumb sucking during infancy minimal.

So, is it okay for your baby to suck his/her thumb for sleep? If thumb-sucking is a natural and occasional behavior for a young infant, it is unlikely to have any harmful effects and may even provide some benefits. However, if thumb-sucking becomes a constant and prolonged habit that continues after age four, it may increase the risk of dental problems and other issues.


How can you help your child break the thumb-sucking habit?

If your child is under age four, talk to your pediatrician about whether you need to intervene. Because most children stop thumb sucking before it becomes a problem, there is often no reason to try stop this behavior. If you are concerned about your child's thumb-sucking habit, you can try to gently discourage it using the approaches below:

  • Be patient and gentle: Remember that thumb sucking is a habit that can be difficult to break, so it's important to be patient and gentle with your child. Avoid scolding or punishing your child, as this may lead to anxiety or stress and may make the habit worse.

  • Provide alternatives: Offering your baby or toddler other ways to comfort themselves, such as a favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or soothing ritual can help them shift their focus away from thumb sucking. Offer the alternative comfort at every sleep time to reinforce the new comfort object with sleep (see our blog on loveys here).

  • Don't use sleep training to stop finger sucking: Sleep training will not solve this type of problem. However, some families will choose to offer comforts such as rocking, feeding, or a pacifier to replace a finger sucking association. These alternative comforts can increase the frequency of night waking. Our sleep training class can help you create a plan to move away from those types of associations.

  • Use positive reinforcement: Praising and rewarding your child for not thumb sucking can be a great way to encourage good behavior. Avoid creating a sticker chart or reward system around sleep, because thumb sucking can be an automatic behavior and failing to achieve a reward can cause a child great distress.

  • Consult with your pediatrician or a pediatric dentist: If your child's thumb sucking habit persists beyond the age of 4 or if you are concerned about the effect on their teeth and mouth, consult with your pediatrician or a pediatric dentist for further advice and guidance. There are oral appliances that can be used in extreme circumstances, but they should only be used under the supervision of a professional.

Overall, thumb-sucking for sleep can be a normal and harmless behavior for most babies, but it is important to be aware of the potential long-term risks and to monitor the habit as your baby grows and develops.


References:

  1. Dimberg L, Bondemark L, Söderfeldt B, Lennartsson B. Prevalence of malocclusion traits and sucking habits among 3-year-old children. Swed Dent J. 2010;34(1):35-42. PMID: 20496855.

  2. Nasir A, Nasir L. Counseling on Early Childhood Concerns: Sleep Issues, Thumb-Sucking, Picky Eating, School Readiness, and Oral Health. Am Fam Physician. 2015 Aug 15;92(4):274-8.

  3. Borrie FR, Bearn DR, Innes NP, Iheozor-Ejiofor Z. Interventions for the cessation of non-nutritive sucking habits in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Mar 31;2015(3):CD008694.

  4. Aarts, C., Hornell, A., Kylberg, E., Hofvander, Y. and Gebre-Medhin, M., 1999. Breastfeeding patterns in relation to thumb sucking and pacifier use. Pediatrics, 104(4), pp.e50-e50.

  5. Ekas, N. V., Lickenbrock, D. M., & Braungart-Rieker, J. M. (2013). Developmental trajectories of emotion regulation across infancy: Do age and the social partner influence temporal patterns? Infancy, 18, 729–754.

  6. Messayke, S., Franco, P., Forhan, A., Dufourg, M.N., Charles, M.A. and Plancoulaine, S., 2020. Sleep habits and sleep characteristics at age one year in the ELFE birth cohort study. Sleep Medicine, 67, pp.200-206.

  7. Butler, R., Moore, M. and Mindell, J.A., 2016. Pacifier use, finger sucking, and infant sleep. Behavioral sleep medicine, 14(6), pp.615-623.

  8. Kumar, A., Zubair, M., Gulraiz, A., Kalla, S., Khan, S., Patel, S., Fleming, M.F., Oghomitse-Omene, P.T., Patel, P. and Qavi, M.S.S., 2022. An Assessment of Risk Factors of Delayed Speech and Language in Children: A Cross-Sectional Study. Cureus, 14(9).

  9. Strutt, C., Khattab, G. and Willoughby, J., 2021. Does the duration and frequency of dummy (pacifier) use affect the development of speech?. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 56(3), pp.512-527.

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