The image of a baby or toddler contentedly sucking on a thumb is a common one. You might think it’s cute, a sweet picture of childhood innocence. You might think it’s a strange behavior and wonder why they do it. You might wonder if it’s beneficial to the children or damaging. You might wonder at what age digit sucking is no longer within the realm of normal, appropriate behavior. All of these questions about digit sucking are answered below.

What is digit sucking and is it normal?

Digit sucking is normal behavior among primates including humans, chimpanzees, and others. It simply involves sucking on the thumb or other fingers, although it is also possible to suck on a toe or a number of toes. This behavior is a natural coping mechanism and generally begins in the womb. The behavior is initially bred from the natural inclination to suck, necessary for breast feeding. The behavior continues because it is calming and soothing. Children often digit suck when they are bored, sleepy, hungry, or restless.

Why do children digit suck?

Children digit suck because of the calming and soothing effect. The behavior becomes habitual, and usually stops when the child finds more physical and emotional fulfillment in the world and doesn’t need the habitual coping mechanism any longer. Beyond a certain age, digit sucking can possibly indicate an emotional problem or an anxiety disorder.

At what age is digit sucking no longer normal behavior?

Although every child and every case is unique, most children cease digit sucking behavior by age 5. Many children stop the behavior on their own starting around age 2. As children get older and continue to digit suck, it may be necessary to intervene and help the child stop.

Does digit sucking have any risks?

There are some significant dental risks to digit sucking, but these are generally only problematic for those continuing to digit suck around age 5 when permanent teeth begin to develop. Any damage before the onset of these teeth is generally reversible. The main risks are misalignment of the teeth or the teeth being pushed forward. Orthodontic treatment is often required for this type of damage. Speech problems – such as a lisp – are another possible outcome. Even altered tongue function is possible.

How can I help my child stop digit sucking?

If your child is still digit sucking beyond an appropriate age, there are many steps you can take to aid your child. Try positive reinforcement and offer your child praise or rewards for not digit sucking. Never shame or humiliate your child, as this will only lower their self-esteem and likely won’t stop the behavior anyway. Try putting gloves on your child or wrapping something around the thumb, as this might help and will certainly help remind your child to stop the otherwise automatic behavior. If these at-home treatments don’t help, consider talking to your child’s doctor or trying behavioral therapy.