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The Whys Of Childhood Thumb Sucking
by Stephen A. Peterson 
03/16/12
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The Whys Of Childhood Thumb Sucking
© 2012

by

Stephen A. Peterson


Why do infants, babies and young children suck their thumbs? And why do many children continue to suck their thumbs as they develop from bottle and breast feeding? Empirical studies generally agree that children who suck their thumbs do so to obtain satisfaction from this activity. And in the absence of the bottle/breast, the child will turn to the next available item—their thumb.

Child Developmentalists have studied why some children suck their thumbs more than others as well as why some continue this behavior long term—some as late as their college years. A number of experts suggest faulty feeding strategies are to blame. They found that rigid feeding schedules that feeds a child only response to a clock and not when a child is hungry associates highly to thumb sucking. A hungry child was found to suck on anything he/she could get into their mouth because this was found to relieve some of the hunger pain that hunger brings. At least the child can turn to their thumb which provides temporary hunger relief.

Others found that not enough sucking opportunities and food to satisfy the child’s needs have also been associated with faulty feeding strategies as well. Some parents/caregivers are concerned about overweight or obesity among children in recent years. Because of these concerns, the child’s feeding time is limited as a preventive strategy. He/she is not satisfied when their food is abruptly taken from them. In other situations, the child can not enough food in the time allowed due to a small hole in the bottle’s nipple or the slow amount of mother’s milk when breast fed. In other circumstances, liquid flows are so great that the child obtains enough food but receives so little sucking activity. In both instances, feelings of frustration may be expressed by thumb sucking.

Some children are weaned from their bottles or breasts too soon. They, at times, often miss the pleasure of sucking. When this happens, the child is not ready for just solid foods alone. It is recommended to make the change over more slowly, give the child sucking opportunities.

As a child develops from an infant, baby then to early childhood, many children regress back to an infantile stage of development with respect to satisfiers, i.e. thumb sucking. This is most likely to occur when a child is tired, frustrated, experience fear or unhappiness. Almost any circumstance may stimulate childhood regression—a new child in the family; a move to a new location; going to preschool, death of a family member/pet; separation anxiety to name a few. So her/his thumb goes into their mouth.

Virtually, all children do some thumb sucking until their 9th month up to a year. Only when a child’s excessive sucking continues or lasts month after month beyond 12 months with no sign of lessening should a parent(s)/caregiver(s) be concerned. It is here suggested parent(s)/caregiver(s) take action to determine why or seek help from a child behavioral specialist.

Will thumb sucking go away? It may or may not. If thumb sucking persists beyond the usual age, it is safe to assume it has developed into a habit. Habits are learned behavior resulting from repeated activity. Such behaviors will persist until another source of satisfaction replaces it. It will be the child’s parent(s)/caregiver(s) responsibility to find out what the satisfier is causing the thumb sucking and how it can be replaced. The key will be patience to modify the child’s behavior. This will most certainly take time and skill.

In the article that follows, suggestions will be given as strategies for dealing with thumb sucking.


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