Baby sucks his thumb, should I be worried?
A little anxiety, a desire to sleep, and presto, baby calms down instantly by slipping his thumb into his mouth. You find the gesture adorable, but you can't help worrying about the long-term effects of this habit? Response from Edwige Antier, pediatrician.
At what age can a baby grab and suck his thumb?
If baby catches his little thumb and thus seems to access a need for suction, he may not have waited for his arrival in the world to try it: in some babies, the thumb intervenes very early. "From life in utero, around the 4th month of pregnancy, ultrasounds show the image of small fetuses sucking their thumb", but Edwige Antier pediatrician and author of My child in full health (Eyrolles 2021) explains it: " Presumably, in the choppy ocean of waves of the amniotic sac, some have been in oral contact with their little fingers passing in front of their mouths. The lips exercised their sucking reflex, and the future baby took a liking to it…”. A beautiful story that begins long before our babies are in front of our eyes, but which is not the case for everyone: babies who suck their thumbs are not so common. On the other hand, many will also have a pacifier, pacifier or comforter brought directly by the parent.
Why does a baby suck his thumb?
Because he is hungry and exercising his sucking reflex
Initially, however, thumb sucking is only a kind of “training” towards the feeding that awaits it. As the pediatrician explains: “Newborns must provide for their nutritional needs as soon as their cord is cut. Instinctively, he crawls towards his mother's breast, sucking in the milk. If he is not presented with either the breast or the bottle of milk, thumb sucking soothes him… For a while, until the need is so vital that his alert system triggers crying. »
When he is tired, stressed or hungry, the child sometimes brings his thumb to his mouth for a small "dose" of comfort: the sucking reflex causes a secretion of endorphins, hormones that provide a sensation well-being at home.
Discovering your senses
We can also add that from birth to twelve months, baby goes through an oral phase which represents a strong sensory zone around the mouth. He then experiences great pleasure in operating it and activating his sucking reflex.
The thumb, a benefit or a problem?
If it can temporarily soothe your baby, sucking his thumb can however become an obstacle to the proper establishment of breastfeeding, especially when you want to apply the recommendations of breastfeeding "on demand". . For the pediatrician, the thumb can lead to some confusion in the mother-child relationship that is created by breastfeeding: "The thumb grip is also a form of request, it is a sign that we are not letting the newborn at the mother's breast, and that too much time is spent on breastfeeding (a very common practice in France). From then on, the baby calms down in this way, of course, but the breast is not stimulated and will produce less milk. And the baby will always be hungry...
How to prevent baby taking his thumb?
For the pediatrician, if the thumb or the pacifier is not yet a habit in children, good practice comes down to prevention: breastfeeding the baby on demand, whether breast or bottle! Thus he will feel neither the need for his thumb nor for a pacifier. Once the baby has become dependent, from the first two months, do not make him feel guilty or stress him. He will decrease the suction when he discovers the pleasure of playing and talking. It is therefore above all necessary to play with him, to exchange, to tell...
Thumb, pacifier, or sucked comforter... Is it the same?
Indeed, they are all breast or bottle substitutes by which the baby will be reassured. The problem with these substitutes is that they often allow us not to listen to the baby's need. "We invented the concept of 'non-nutritive sucking'. With a pacifier, placed directly in the maternity bag, we often hope to "adjust" the feeding times, relieve the mother whose nipples are sore, and calm the baby. “says Dr. Antier. But it is a decoy, which can, in addition, disturb the establishment of breastfeeding.
Does the thumb influence sleep?
All infants sleep in small cycles, and feel the need for reassurance between cycles. “The thumb here has an advantage over the pacifier, it is… close at hand! Baby can take it back without disturbing you, while he cannot find the pacifier and asks you at night. That said, this advantage is also a disadvantage when it comes to stopping the thumb, which cannot be moved away.
Does the thumb have an effect on baby teeth?
It is not the suction itself that deforms the jaw and influences the milk teeth. Breastfeeding, for example, will have no effect. On the other hand, the thumb effectively creates "shifts" between the jaws, often asymmetrical, as well as a hollowing of the palate (source 1). The pacifier also creates its deformations, depending on the position used by the child and the upper incisors "forward". This is why it is therefore advisable to stop the thumb or the pacifier quite early. Dentists believe that beyond 3-4 years, this little habit must be stopped to avoid dental problems.
How to tell him to stop sucking his thumb? By what methods?
If you have set yourself an imperative date, a birthday, his start of school, Santa Claus, it will not be easy for your child, because a transition period is necessary for him. “Certain somewhat abrupt methods sometimes cause sleep disturbances, stomach aches or tics, which will be more difficult to get over than thumb sucking! “, evokes the pediatrician. However, patient aids adapted to the child's reactions can be put in place with your child:
Trying to swap your thumb little by little for a cuddly toy to squeeze in order to reassure yourself.
Talk to him, discuss with him as much as possible about the fact that he is great, and offer him your support, without ever scolding him. He must understand that you are there when he needs it and that communication also allows him to calm down.
Pick a stress-free time. No need to plan this at the same time as potty training, or when a little brother or sister is born.
Be patient. You can start by allowing him the thumb when he goes to bed, then only on weekends, to gradually get him used to doing without.
Give him a challenge. Why not highlight his efforts with a table, for example, in which you will note his successes?
Should we be worried as a parent if it takes time?
No, no need to stress if the child keeps his thumb as usual. "The little ones to whom we talk a lot and who like to exchange, play, often give up their thumb themselves", confides the pediatrician. “But others need it longer to support separations, moments of stress or fatigue. “, she adds. Admittedly, the dental bite will be deformed and the milk teeth may be advanced, but today's orthodontists know how to straighten this if necessary. We must let the language and the reading settle well before putting devices in the mouth.
All children quit, right?
The vast majority forsake their thumb, indeed. However, there are adults, even in couple, even parents who hide to suck their thumb. "In this case, psychological support can help rediscover the frustrations of childhood that did not allow her to be abandoned...", advises the pediatrician.