Monday, 28 October 2013

Thumb sucking

My youngest, now fourteen months old, sucks his thumb. He always has - well, since he was old enough to find both his thumb and mouth.

Sucking is a completely natural, instinctive reflex in babies - obviously linked to breastfeeding. The sucking reflex helps baby self-soothe when he is hungry or tired, and is a way for him to calm and comfort himself, even helping him fall asleep easier at naptime or bedtime or if he half wakes up during the night.

I've had a few moms question the fact that I let Baby suck his thumb, which causes me more than a little confusion. First of all, "let him?" His little thumb will end up in his mouth by instinct without any help from me. It's attached to him. There's very little I could do to stop it, even if I wanted to - which I don't. 

Thumb sucking is totally natural and incredibly useful. I see no harm in the habit, nor is there any evidence that it is in any way harmful for babies. According to the Canadian Dental Association, thumb sucking is completely normal, natural and harmless until the permanent adult teeth begin to come in around age five. The majority of babies and young children who suck their thumbs have stopped by this age anyway. If mine doesn't, we'll deal with breaking the habit at that time. But it makes no sense to me to stop a habit that helps my child soothe and comfort himself, fall asleep easier and settle down when he's tired or fussy or worked up simply because it's a habit that he shouldn't have several years down the road. To me, that would be like trying to sleep train a four-month-old who requires feeding every few hours, or potty train a one-year-old who's body doesn't tell him when he has to go until he's already going. It simply doesn't make any sense.

Those same moms who tell me I need to break my son of the bad habit of thumb-sucking have also told me I should use a pacifier instead. I have had dozens of other parents tell me that pacifiers are so much better for babies to suck than thumbs. Why, I asked? Oh, something about the teeth and the jaw. So I looked it up. 

The Canadian Dental Association, while acknowledging that it's perfectly normal for babies to suck their thumbs, does recommend using a pacifier if possible - because a pacifier is something that the parent can control access to. Not because it is in any way better for the child's health or development. Sucking anything, thumb or pacifier, is equally acceptable until their adult teeth start growing in, at which point they need to be weaned of the sucking habit (again, whether it's thumb or pacifier) because it could affect the growth of the teeth and jaw. The only reason a pacifier is suggested is because at this point, if they are five years old and still sucking, it might be easier for a parent to break the habit of sucking a pacifier than that of sucking a thumb. As far as a habit for your baby goes, there is nothing better about sucking a pacifier than sucking a thumb.

My baby sucks his thumb when he's sleepy, when he wants to nurse, when he needs quiet time, when he needs to settle himself down and have a snuggle. It soothes him, it comforts him, it makes him happy and feels good for him. It helps him to fall asleep at night and helps him to sleep more soundly and for longer. To me, these are all positive associations - and with no known negative associations at all, he can keep sucking his thumb for as long as he likes until those grown-up teeth start to pop through.

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