Friday, August 8, 2008

Thumb/Finger Sucking

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image source--and helpful information on the habit of thumb sucking
In the book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, Tracy Hogg talks about thumb (or finger) sucking. She says it is " important form of oral stimulation and self-soothing behavior" (page 127). Hogg believes thumb sucking is something we should encourage. She says, "Remember that this is one of the first ways in which your infant gains control over his body and his emotions" (page 127). It gives your child a sense of control and accomplishment. A wonderful thing about this is that it is controlled by the baby rather than "big people." She assures that baby will give it up when she is ready to.

Kaitlyn sucks her index and middle finger. She is 15 months old and I have never found it to be a problem. 90% of the time she only sucks on them when she is in her bed. The rest of the time she sucks on them when she is overly tired (like at church and she misses a nap), when she has gotten hurt, when she has been told no and really wants to do whatever it is, and when she feels uncomfortable or nervous (like around strange new people who are in her face).

As suggested in Babywise, starting at 6 months I started removing her fingers from her mouth during her waketime. At first I would only do it if she was sucking and was otherwise okay. It was rarely a problem because she uses her hands to play and she prefers playing to sucking on her fingers. At the younger age, I allowed some finger sucking if I thought she really needed it at the moment.

Now at 15 months, there are still times I allow it. I take it in the context of the situation. For each situation I allow it, take note that she doesn't always do it in those situations.

I will allow her to suck on her fingers at church. She is tired and by sucking on her fingers, she keeps herself calm and quiet. You have to remember she is not in a nursery yet, so she is in with the adults for Sunday School and in with either my husband or me as we teach the youth. At that time, I am more concerned with her being quiet than her sucking on her fingers. But I only allow it later in the church time, and definitely not within the first hour (her nap normally starts about an hour into church time).

If she has gotten hurt somehow, I also allow her to suck on her fingers still. She does it for a short time and only until she is calm, then she is ready to play again, so it hasn't become an issue. Again, every times she gets hurt, she doesn't suck her fingers. Just yesterday she fell and bumped her head. She criend, but never sucked her fingers.

If she has been told no, she sometimes sticks her fingers in her mouth (if she is really upset about being told no). In this case I also allow it. She does it long enough to gain her composure then she moves on. I find this an acceptable way for her to not throw a fit at her age. She does it for less than a minute, and she doesn't do it every time she gets told no, so I have not found it to be a problem.

When she is feeling uncomfortable or nervous, I hold her and take her fingers out of her mouth. I tell her "you don't need your fingers." I am offering her myself for comfort and she always finds the instruction to remove her fingers to be humorous. That usually gets her giggling and she forgets all about the nervousness she feels.

There is the rare occasion she puts her fingers in her mouth for apparently no reason. I can tell her from across the room, "you don't need your fingers, take them out of your mouth" and she will.

One thing I would watch out for (and this is in general for anything your child might be attached to) is around the age of 9-11 months. Both of my kids seemed to start to form an emotional bond to things at that age. For Brayden, it was a blanket. For Kaitlyn, it was her fingers. You have to really watch them at that age and stop them from forming a strong habit to this emotional item.

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Reader Thanks/Comments/Questions/Tips:
  • Kelly said...
    Great post! One of my twins sucks her thumb when she is tired or hungry (she is 6 months). I don't mind her sucking her thumb either as I see it as a sign of something. However, I am having a hard time feeding her as every time I put a spoon in her mouth she puts her thumb in there as well. Right now I am trying to hold her hand down to not allow this as not only is thumb not necessary in this situation but it is MESSY!!! Food is everywhere as she is taking food out of her mouth while she is sucking her thumb. Do you have any more suggestions on how to get controller over this or as to why she is doing this?
    August 8, 2008 9:46 AM
    The Traveling Turtle said...
    My little one started that habit as well for a short while. In BWII they say to say "hands down please" or something to that effect. So when she starts to put her hands in her mouth, I just have to take them out and sometimes I even have to hold them down for a short bit until she stops trying to do it again. She also used to try and do this while she was taking her bottle and I would have to do the same thing. If you are consistant in doing that, I think children will learn over time. Keep up the good work!
    August 8, 2008 11:45 AM
    Plowmanators said...
    Thanks Traveling Turtle...good tips!
    August 9, 2008 10:16 AM
    bethers21 said...
    My 7 month old son is doing the same thing. Many times he puts his thumb in when he is actually ready for another bite of food. I think he just wants something in his mouth, not really caring what. I'm doing the same "hands down" over and over. Sometimes I forget to say please :) Another thing BWII suggests is putting their hands under the tray. I did that for awhile but want to teach him sign language now. I know it will pay off to be consistent in pulling his hands down but I'm still covered in food every night, too!Great post, Val!
    August 8, 2008 11:51 AM
    Plowmanators said...
    Thanks for your points, too, bethers!
    August 9, 2008 10:16 AM
    Plowmanators said...
    Kelly,See this post: Baby Highchair Manners: Also, this is a situation for consistency. I had the same issue with Kaitlyn. You have to just gently put their hands down and tell them "no fingers in your mouth while you are eating." You will have to do this over and over. Remain patient and consistent and she will get it. Remember it is all training.
    August 9, 2008 10:15 AM
  • Ashley said...
    Just curious why you would suggest not to let children get attached to a transitional object? I see it as very healthy and normal and as long as there is balance, I see no problem with it.
    August 8, 2008 6:18 PM
    Plowmanators said...
    Ashley, I am not sure what you mean by transitional object. If you are referring to the last paragraph in the post, let me elaborate.Up until 9-10 months of age, both of my kids had their sucking things they did for comfort, but really only used those things for comfort. Like I said, for Brayden, a blanket, and for Kaitlyn, her fingers. Around 9-10 months, they started turning to those things out of habit rather than need. I didn't notice that soon enough with Brayden, and we had a real blanket addict on our hands. With Kaitlyn, I was more in tune with the situation and have avoided her becoming habitually dependent on her fingers. She uses them when she needs them rather than when she wants and needs them. Like I said, I allow it when I see it as a need, and prevent it when I see it as something she is doing out of boredom. I hope that clarifies.
    August 9, 2008 10:20 AM
  • LEM said...
    My 3-month old has discovered his hands and has decided that sucking his fist is fun. Is this something I should try and stop now? He does this pretty consitently when awake. I'm sure he would do it when put down to sleep but he is swaddled.
    August 17, 2008 9:55 PM
    Plowmanators said...
    I personally wouldn't stop it. But I prefer fingers/thumb/fist to pacifier.
    August 17, 2008 11:30 PM


Kotryna said...

Hi, I am new to your blog and I appreciate the time and effort you spend in giving us BW moms tips and suggestions. Some of my friends have followed my example of non-sleep deprived kids who behave relatively well and we have our own little support group with each other. This blog though is wonderful, especially in light of all the negative things said about Babywise.

I do have a question about this topic. I have a 3 year old and a 1 year old. Both of them suck their thumbs and have blankets they are very attached to. They only suck their thumbs and have their blankets when it is time to sleep though and I have not ever had the problem of constant thumb sucking.

I don't mind it when my one year old sucks his thumb. I think it's healthy for him at his age and I'm happy he can be self reliant in soothing himself to sleep. I sometimes wish my three year old would grow out of the thumb sucking and the blanket attachment though. What age do kids commonly grow out of this type of behavior? And when do I know when it's time for me to intervene and help him stop? Or should I even intervene at all?

Thanks again for this wonderful blog!

Plowmanators said...

Good question. I think it is great to limit it to only the bedroom. That is a step in the right direction. It seems like I have read kids will grow out of it on there own around 3-4 years. But not all do.

So long as it stays in the bedroom, I wouldn't intervene at this point. If it comes out of the bedroom, just remind that we only do that in our beds.

Brayden is 3.5 and still attached to his "blankie" in his bed. I am wondering when he will get over that, but it doesn't seem like the time to take it from him. It is something he thinks about now because he takes note of the fact that he is the only one around who needs a special blankie (Kaitlyn doesn't). It doesn't bother him at all, but he has noticed it.

Vita & said...

Hello, i have a question about thumb sucking. i read your post and see that you encourage it. but i'm still a bit worried. when i put my baby to sleep, that's immediately what he does - thumb goes straight into mouth. it's soothing for him. and i read what you're saying - that it's good. but somehow, it makes me feel like i'm doing something wrong, or bad to him. because it mostly manifests when i'm putting him down, he doesn't want to, so thumb goes in. could you share your thoughts please? (oh, he is 4mo old). thanks so much!

Plowmanators said...

Vita, I don't think that you should feel bad that your son is able to soothe himself. All babies (all people) have coping mechanisms. Most babies like to suck. It sounds like he just likes to suck his thumb to go to sleep.

If you don't like thumb sucking, you could try to see if he will do a pacifier instead--but his reasons for sucking won't be any different.

For babies who aren't able to self-soothe, they still need to be soothed to sleep. Rocking, feeding, holding, etc. The why isn't different, just the how. I hope that makes sense :)

Vita & said...

thank you Valerie! helpful, as always. my worry though, is that i am encouraging a habit that he will have to UNlearn later, as it continues too far into the toddler years. Being a big BW fan, i remember the BWII mantra: begin as you intend to go. i am definitely NOT intending on rocking, holding, or playing the pecifier game, so that's why i don't want to even start on this route. so the only option left is the thumb-sucking. It doesn't feel like a great one though b/c it's something he'll have to unlearn later, perhaps with great difficulty. any thoughts?
thanks so much,

Plowmanators said...

Vita, no matter what path you follow, you will have to unlearn it later. If you feel like you would have the ability to take away a pacifier even when it would mean lack of sleep for everyone, then go that path. If not, I think the thumb is the best option. I like it because you don't have to remember to take it with you, and the child is less likely to want it while playing because she needs her hands to play.

BW suggests around 6 months to start having baby not suck on the thumb when out of the bedroom. I think if you start young (6 months might be young, maybe around 8), then it shouldn't become a problem.

I am not far enough down the road for me to tell you it will easily be broken or it won't be. My guess is that it will be harder for some than others.

So, you have to do/allow something. You just have to choose what you think is best for your child and family.

Tawni said...

My 4 month old was sleeping fine without a pacifier or her thumb, but when she found her hands this month she automatically started sucking her thumb for naps and boredom. Her cousins are BW babies and half suck their fingers and half don't need anything. Having 3 dentists in the family and being concerned about their teeth my sister decided to use a pacifier at a month to keep the fingers out of the mouth for naps and bedtime and it worked. But now she will eventually have to break her of a pacifier to fall asleep (8mths). I am concerned myself of my baby's mouth and will sucking her thumb change the anatomy of her mouth or give her buck teeth. My husband, who is a dentist, is not concerned and said only when she starts getting her adult teeth will it push them out and be a concern. I still do not want her to be a thumb sucker since she did not do it for the first 4 months of her life for sleep. Why now does she need it? So, I started putting mittens on her hands and giving her a pacifier. She is not sucking long on the pacifier before she spits it out and finds her thumb. Having the mittens on, she still sucks but is not able to stick her whole entire thumb or fist in her mouth and eventually gives up and goes to sleep. I feel like if I can train her to sleep then I can train her to not suck her thumb. What is your advice? Should I just give up and let her fall asleep with her thumb?

Plowmanators said...

Tawni, you can try it. 4 months was about the age McKenna started to suck her thumb.

Kaitlyn sucks her fingers and has zero impact on her teeth. McKenna sucks her thumb and has a bit of impact on one tooth. Our pedi dentist says he doesn't worry until 3 years old, which is the age most kids will stop sucking on their own. He did say pacis tend to have less of an impact on teeth, but they still can.

If she will go to sleep and stay asleep happily through your efforts to keep her fingers/thumbs/pacifiers out of her mouth, then I see no issue with it :) But babies do need to suck, so keep that in mind. You can't keep her from sucking all day long.

Tawni said...

Thanks, I gave up on the mittens and pacifier and just let her go at it with her thumb. She does not do it with her wake time or if she does I take it out of her mouth and distract her with a toy. It does soothe her. My husband thinks I'm crazy for being so worried when he is not. Thanks for the advice.

Tawni said...

Thanks, I gave up on the mittens and pacifier and just let her go at it with her thumb. She does not do it with her wake time or if she does I take it out of her mouth and distract her with a toy. It does soothe her. My husband thinks I'm crazy for being so worried when he is not. Thanks for the advice.

MAMA2ARL said...

Hi Val! I haven't commented in a while, mostly b/c I now have a 2 1/2 yr old and 1 yr old, so I've been almost as busy as you. :) I was just curious, since you wrote this blog several years ago, how Kaitlyn and even McKenna are doing now with thumb sucking. My son never sucked his thumb or fingers or needed a paci. I was very blessed. :) However, my daughter (who turns one in August) does suck her thumb, but it has always been just when she's tired or actually on her way to sleep. I'm not too concerned about it becoming a habit, but I would like to do whatever I can to help her ween from it ASAP. (My family is definitely concerned about it. :) ) Is there anything new you have learned to do with your daughters? Also, how long did they suck their thumbs? Thanks so much for all of your help! :) Laura

Brittany said...

I was so glad to find your posts on this topic! My daughter (14 months) is also a ring finger/middle finger sucker. The problem now is that she sucks them so hard she has blistered them! I have been wrapping her hand before bed and she cries for almost an hour. (Makes sense, she's used to soothing that way.) I just want them to heal. Do you have any suggestions? I think I read that it's okay for her to be sucking her fingers still at bedtime only, which was a relief to me.

Plowmanators said...

Brittany, Kaitlyn did that once. It was when she got her two year molars. So if your daughter is doing it, it could be teeth. In that case, pain killer might help her not suck so hard.

I suggest a bandaid or something on her fingers so she can't suck them while awake, then you can remove them for sleep.

Plowmanators said...


Sorry I never saw your comment before now! McKenna is still sucking her thumb, but she isn't a huge sucker. She doesn't suck while sleeping.

Kaitlyn also still sucks her fingers sometimes. We are working on cutting it for good. I don't have any amazing ideas. Like I said above, I like to use bandaids. They help her remember to not suck.

Lauren Moldowan said...

Can you let us know how it went to completely stop finger sucking with Kaitlyn? My son is almost 5, and we have worked to set limits and establish substitutions: relaxation for anxiety, sensory toys to keep hands busy, etc). If I could do it over again, I would have set stricter limits at a much earlier age as you suggest if i could do it all over. I just kept procrastinating though and reasoning to wait until after birth of his sister, potty training, etc. Then at 2 1/2 though we had a fire at our house that destroyed all of my kids things. Thankfully, my husband was home, but the kids and I were not. We had been working on leaving the lovey in the crib for bedtime which was by default limiting the thumbsucking, but that meant it was in the house along with all other possible replacements smoke damaged in the fire. I was so thankful that he had his thumb during that difficult time. He wasnt able to attach to a new blanket until 5 days after the fire. Anyway, that was 2 years ago and We have struggled just to limit the thumb sucking to bedtime. I might be inclined to ignore it if only at bedtime, but he is a strong sucker ( still has tongue thrust, already showing an open bite). Any advice?

Valerie Plowman said...

It was quite smooth with kaitlyn. She had a strong desire to suck. I think she had the maturity and desire to stop sucking, also. She cared about it and that helped her want to stop. McKenna is 5 and often still sucks her thumb to fall asleep, but rarey in public. She also doesn't always suck her thumb to fall asleep and doesn't suck once she is asleep. All that to say, she is weaning naturally so even though she is five, I am not pushing it. So long as she makes progress, I won't push it.

Since it is causing teeth problems, I would work aggressively to stop it. I would give him warning (like--after the 4th of July, you aren't going to suck your thumb anymore). Then have him wear a glove or thumb guard to bed. You could start with absolutely no sucking out of bed and then give a longer time until no sucking at all.

Liz said...

Hello! I know it's been a while since this post, so I'm not sure if you are still answering comments here, but I have a thumb-sucking question I was hoping you could help with!

My daughter is 16 weeks old and has found her thumb. She pretty much only sucks it when going down for naps/nighttime, when she's fussy and needs comfort, or when she wakes up in the middle of a nap or night. For the most part, this has been great because she is able to put herself to sleep much more easily now and we are not struggling so much with 45 minute naps since she can soothe herself back to sleep in the middle of a nap. However, because she now sucks her thumb during times when she would have cried in the past, I'm sometimes confused about when to go in and get her during a nap or the night.

She still consistently wakes up at 40-45 minutes during her naps, and she immediately goes for her thumb. Sometimes (particularly during her morning nap) she sucks it for 5-15 minutes and then goes back to sleep. But other times (especially during her 2nd and 3rd naps) she wakes up and sucks for a LONG time and never goes back to sleep, or she gets stuck in a cycle of waking up, sucking, falling back to sleep for a few minutes, and then waking again, over and over. I am unsure of whether/when to abandon the nap when this happens. It's stressful to leave her in the crib awake and sucking for 45-ish minutes until her next feeding is due (she's on a 3-hour schedule currently and takes 4 naps, the last one being a catnap). Would you recommend leaving her in the crib up until the official end of naptime or at some point should I go in and get her? I think part of it is that I'm dealing with guilt because when she's sucking her thumb I am thinking she's stressed out and just expressing it in another way rather than crying, so I'm unsure if I should let her be or go in to comfort her. This is probably an irrational fear, but you know how mom guilt can be!


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