Babies who discover their thumb tend to be great sleepers because they have the ability to self soothe. The thumb comes attached to baby so her sleep is not disrupted while searching the crib for a pacifier or calling out for mommy or daddy’s help in the middle of the night (huge plus for parents!). Babies who suck their thumb or fingers while falling asleep learn how to be independent sleepers because it belongs to them and they know how to use it.
The thumb does not stay in baby’s mouth throughout the night; typically, babies who use their thumb to self-soothe only use it briefly to assist them when going from one stage of sleep to the next. When she is getting ready to fall asleep and becoming drowsy, the thumb goes in, then a few minutes later she is fast asleep! It is not possible to keep the thumb in through all the sleep cycles.
Some parents are hesitant to take away the pacifier for fear that their baby will become a thumb sucker instead. The benefit of the thumb over a soother or pacifier is it is attached, so there is no chance of losing it and it is less disruptive to sleep; when babies come to a lighter stage of sleep and briefly wake up, they can automatically put their thumb in their mouth. It does not cause as much fragmented sleep as waking up to find and input the soother, because baby has to fully wake up.
Parents do worry that thumb sucking can become a long term habit, and occasionally it can. If your child does develop a habit of thumb sucking that goes beyond just soothing during sleep times, there are some behavior modifications that can be done to eliminate the habit.
Most experts agree that thumb sucking under age 5 is okay and most children give up the habit by the time they reach kindergarten. One in five children suck their thumb after their fifth birthday. It does not become a concern until a child’s permanent teeth start coming in. Here are a few suggestions for children ages 3 plus if you would like to put an end to this habit:
Schedule a trip to the dentist and have the dentist explain about how teeth grow, discuss good dental hygiene, and how thumb sucking can cause some problems. For some kids, the trip to the dentist can be enough to end the habit since it is coming from someone other than mommy or daddy!
Daytime Gentle Reminders
If you notice your child sucking their thumb throughout the day when they need comfort you can redirect her. Gently remind her to stop without scolding or criticizing. You can also hand her a toy or stuffed animal and have her give it a hug, or distract her by doing a different activity. Another option is gently remove the thumb out of her mouth and offer a sippy cup of water instead.
Go purchase some finger puppets (bonus if you can find some that relate to something your child is really into). You can put little finger puppets on your child’s hand or a puppet that covers the hand. The puppets can be served as a reminder when your child goes to stick their thumb in their mouth, “Oh, I need to move my hand away.”
Habits do take time to break. Breaking the sucking of the thumb habit could take anywhere from a few days to a week or two. Thumb sucking tends to get a bad rap, but it can create a superstar sleeper who learns to self soothe early on, and sleep is such an important component of a healthy lifestyle!