Shall I let my baby suck her thumb?

 This is one of the most frequent question I get, and my answer invariably is “I cannot make this decision for you but I believe that we (parents) make  a huge amount of decisions for our children and Thumb / finger sucking is one for them to take, and it is one for us to respect.”

In my opinion, finger or thumb sucking it is the most natural, instinctive, powerful, and independent  ways for babies and children to calm down, lower their heart beat, and drift off to sleep. But this self soothing behaviour that can make a grown up man melt of adoration in front of his child can also fire up the strongest of arguments between parents, between parents and children, even between relatives. Ouch! So when does thumb sucking become such an issue? When the teeth get pushed forward of course! and also the misconception that all thumb sucking children lack confidence.
somewhere between 85% and 99% of children have stopped sucking their thumb by the time their grown up teeth come out (which is the time when thumb sucking can start causing permanent damage to the teeth position or jaw line contour)
But what about the others? What about the children who carry on sucking their thumb?
Why do they do it? when investigators looked at late thumb suckers for common traits, they only found one common denominator that sets them apart from all the other children: a long history of thumb sucking battles from an earlier age. It is amazing how well meaning parents / grandparents / minders etc make it their duty to disengage their child from thumb sucking and in actual fact achieve the exact opposite and make it worse. It must be one of the biggest early years parental frustrations of all. So what do we do? We learn to let go. We learn to let go of that business that is not ours. Of course we can distract, with double handed activities, getting the child to speak, hugs etc, but we must not force, argue, fight, try to convince or pull the thumb out. And for the children who have reached the age of reasoning (7 to 8) we need to acknowledge that some might very well be aware of their “addiction” and feel terrible about it.
Our children need to be trusted. They will learn to let go in their own time, in their own way, gradually, or all at once. And what if they don’t let go? Well, if you never speak a word about that thumb and if you manage to remove yourself from situations where thumb sucking stresses you out… firstly you’re doing the right thing (keep it up), and secondly your child NEEDS that thumb still; she is not ready to face the world offered to her without the support and comfort of her beloved thumb. I have a very pragmatic view on children who suck their thumb late because they need to: it is much easier to fix a physical smile than it is to fix an emotional smile shattered by anxiety.
I often say parenting is the biggest letting go exercise anybody could ever face. From the minute they are born, and forever after. Thumb sucking just adds up to the list. LET IT GO…

Isabelle Edmondson,

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