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Thumbsucking: A Comfort Habit

My niece Bhawna mumbled while sleeping and I turned around to give her a good night kiss. I found Bhawna sucking her thumb even in deep slumber. Bhawna is three years old and has not been able to get rid of this habit. It worries her parents a lot. They often wonder if it is right for a three-year-old to continue sucking her thumb.

Assuredly, these concerns have worried parents through generations. Problems related to thumbsucking could range from health issues to social issues. You are scared that she may develop protruding teeth, or pick up an infection while sucking her thumb, or be the butt of ridicule at school.

The reports that when today’s grandparents were children, thumbsucking was considered a disgusting habit, ranking above nail-biting and at par with nose-picking. Childcare experts say it was considered a sign of maladjustment and parents were asked to use mustard or bitters on the thumb or restrictive clothes to keep the hands under wrap.

But today, professionals dealing with thumbsucking regard it an important developmental stage for children. It may well be a form of self-soothing, says Penelope Leach, a research psychologist, in her book, Your Baby and Child. According to her, when a child is left alone, he sucks his thumb and uses the energy that would have gone into crying. So in short, the child uses sucking to comfort himself, instead of needing an adult. Such children do not cry and ask for attention if they wake up in the middle of the night, and they finally grow up to be more secure children.

Ultrasound scans have revealed that 20-week-old foetuses suck their fingers. All healthy newborns start life and sustain it with an urge to suck and their sucking instinct is not satisfied by feeds alone. Almost all babies suck their fingers, fist, or any part of the hand that they can manage to bring close to their mouths. This serves as the pacifier and gives the child a sense of security.

However, thumbsucking as a habit has to be stopped after a point. Like all good things, it too must come to an end and most people agree that the time should be around the age of five. This is about the time when permanent teeth begin to arrive and the kid starts formal schooling. Both these events can be complicated by thumb sucking.

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