Too Old for Thumb Sucking?

My son – who is 2 years old – has been sucking two fingers of his left hand since he was 2 months old. How do I get him to quit?

– January 22, 2004

Reviewed on 3/10/2010

Finger-sucking is just a variation of thumb-sucking, a very common habit among babies and young children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), many children stop sucking their thumbs or fingers by the time they reach 6 or 7 months of age, but my colleague, Sandy Newmark, M.D., a California-based pediatrician on the faculty of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, tells me that you shouldn’t be concerned even though your son is 2 years old. Dr. Newmark explains that finger-sucking may provide your son with a sense of security and comfort and that for now, your wisest course is to ignore the habit. Intervening at this stage could reinforce it or cause your son to find a substitute.

The AAP notes that some children continue to suck their thumbs past the ages of 6 to 8. Sooner or later, they’re likely to be teased by friends, siblings and other relatives. These comments often bother children enough to motivate them to stop.

The same goes for the habitual use of pacifiers, which some people believe are harmful. They generally cause no problems, provided you don’t give a hungry child a pacifier instead of food. But note that tying a pacifier to the crib or around a child’s neck or hand so it is within easy reach can be dangerous and lead to injury or even death.

I wouldn’t worry about your son’s finger-sucking (or in the case of other children, thumb-sucking or sucking on pacifiers) unless you start to see changes in the roof of his mouth (his palate) or in the way his teeth are lining up. At that point, the AAP recommends consulting your pediatrician or a pediatric dentist.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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