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Thumb Sucking in Infants and Young Children: Causes and Implications for Educators

  • Post category:Disorders
  • Reading time:7 mins read

Infants and Young Children Often Suck a Finger

Infants and young children often suck a finger, usually the thumb. Sears has shown that this makes up about 25% of children between the ages of 3 months and 2 years. According to research by Gesell and Ilgo, thumb sucking is most intense between 18 and 21 months. It usually stops spontaneously at the end of the second year. Sometimes it lasts after that age, until the end of preschool age. There are cases that it continues into late childhood and even into adulthood.

Most children suck their finger only while falling asleep, less often without sleep. Sometimes they replace the thumb with a “decoy”, or suck a piece of cloth, the corner of a pillowcase and the like. It happens that finger sucking occurs again when the child has already abandoned the habit. Then it is a symptom of regression, for example due to hospitalism or jealousy of the younger child in the family.

The Causes of Finger Sucking in Infants and Children

In the infant, sucking the thumb or “cheat” is a continuation of the pleasure he experiences when sucking the mother or bottle. Through a conditioned reaction, this feeling of comfort is associated with lip irritation. That is why it appears even when only the lips are irritated and no food is received. The child spontaneously repeats this stimulation because it is comfortable for him.

If the environment forbids it, his need to experience comfort by irritating his lips with his thumb increases and prolongs. When parents scold a child and threaten to suck his thumb, or punish him, tie his hands in a cradle, put bitter substances on his fingers, he becomes defiant and even more persistently strives for his habit, at least secretly.

Misconceptions About the Harms of Thumb Sucking

One of the common causes of a child sucking his thumb even after infancy is precisely such a wrong reaction of the educator to this child’s habit. They believe that they must suppress finger sucking at all costs because they are convinced that it will harm him in some way. There is a widespread prejudice that prolonged finger sucking deforms the palate and teeth, causes infections in the oral cavity and disrupts digestion. But that is not true.

Deformities of the palate and teeth are congenital anomalies and have nothing to do with thumb sucking. If the pressure of the finger moves the baby teeth to some extent, they return to the place when that pressure disappears, and the growth of the permanent tooth is not affected at all. Oral infections and indigestion are no more common in children who suck their thumbs than in other children.

Recommendations for Handling Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking should be considered a harmless phenomenon. There is no need to suppress it by force. Coercive measures provoke the child’s resistance, making it more difficult for educators. Proper breastfeeding can reduce the need to suck a finger in some cases. Statistical studies have shown that among children who suck a finger for a long time and persistently, there are more children who are weaned prematurely, or are fed at longer intervals than children who do not suck a finger.

Experiments on animals (Levy) led to the same results: an early weaned puppy greedily grabbed a stretched finger or bottle, while a puppy that sucked a bitch long enough did not show that reaction. But children who breastfeed for too long or bottle-feed also suck their finger more often, because the need to experience comfort through sucking has become too fixed.

When Thumb Sucking Is a Sign of Neurosis

We can talk about thumb sucking as a neurosis only when the child sucks the thumb and after the second year of life. Then it is a sign that he finds himself in an awkward life situation from which he cannot find a way out. He therefore lives in a mental tension that he tries to get rid of through a quickly and easily achieved feeling of comfort in the form of lip irritation.

We often find this habit in neglected and lovingly raised children. Then with intimidated and abused children. The sudden onset of finger sucking is a sign that the child has experienced some kind of psychological shock, so he calms his fear, anger or jealousy by experiencing pleasure.

In non-independent, spoiled children, the thumb is sucked when the child finds himself in trouble, in front of a more difficult task or responsibility, or when educators treat him in a cruel way.

Case Study

Among the patients at the dispensary, there were 16 (5.2%) boys and 16 (10.3%) girls in two years who sucked their thumbs and looked for a “cheater” even after the second year. In 4 cases, there was a recurrence of thumb sucking in the fourth, fifth, or eighth year of life; three times it was out of jealousy of a younger child, and the fourth time because of difficulties at school. Other children sucked their thumbs continuously from the first months of life:

  • Up to 3 years 11 children
  • Up to 4 years 9 children
  • Up to 5 years 3 children
  • Up to 6 years 1 child
  • Up to 8 years 3 children
  • Up to 13 years 1 child

All of these children have been raised quite wrongly since the beginning of their lives. Emotional tension, ie the need for psychological load by sucking the thumb, was caused in these cases by these educational procedures:

  • 10 times cuddling + requirements
  • 8 times petting + abuse
  • 4 times authority + abuse
  • 3 times pampering + authority
  • 2 times authority
  • 1 time neglect

And again, in most cases, cuddling is the starting point of the child’s neurotization.

Interestingly, among our 32 thumb-sucking patients, we found 10 mentally retarded children. Among them were the four children who sucked their thumbs until they were eight or thirteen. In them, neurosis occurred most when their difficulties in mastering the teaching material intensified.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In the first two years, nothing should be done against finger sucking. If this habit persists, coercive measures should not be applied. Instead, the child’s life situation should be examined and all that makes the child unhappy should be removed.