Why My Thumbsucker Can Continue at her Leisure

by Michelle Ridell September 26, 2017

Rear view of girl holding her braid

I have the same conversation with my daughter’s dentist every time we go in for her six-month check-up. It goes like this: He tells me to start saving for braces. I say "okay" followed by something mildly apologetic as I acknowledge her thumb-sucking habit. He tells me not to worry, she’ll stop eventually, all kids do, and don’t forget to floss. I like my daughter’s dentist for many reasons – he’s a skilled technician, he’s kind, he has Saturday hours – but one of the biggest reasons is that he is the only person who never gives her (or me) a hard time about that fact that she still sucks her thumb. That’s right, my daughter still sucks her thumb, and, yes, we are well aware she’s way too old to be doing so. We are also aware it’s unsanitary, unsightly, socially unacceptable, and causes dental malocclusion (crooked teeth), but as any parent of a die hard sucker knows, my daughter’s thumb has a powerful hold on her. It soothes like nothing else – magically quashing fears, quelling anxiety, and bringing instantaneous comfort. Since the fateful day we lost the only pacifier she took to, my daughter has been figuratively and literally attached to her thumb. Luckily for her she is a Type D thumb sucker, meaning only the anterior part of her thumb is in her mouth and she does not suck aggressively, therefore her buccinator muscle (responsible for suckling) isn’t overdeveloped to the point of structurally altering the shape of her palate, oral cavity, or dentition. In short, if you’re going to have a thumb sucker, you want a Type D. Most babies suck their thumbs, a finger, or even a toe as part of the rooting and sucking reflexes associated with breastfeeding. In fact, ultrasounds reveal human and other primate fetuses sucking their thumbs in the womb as early as 15 weeks old, suggesting the behavior may be innate. Studies show the percentage of children who suck their thumbs tapers off gradually as they develop from infancy to age five, whereupon it drops significantly. Roughly nine percent of children eight years old or older suck their thumbs, and less than two percent continue the habit past age 12. So while my daughter, who is 11, isn’t exactly an anomaly, she is in a small minority. Our culture accepts that young kids will suck their thumbs. We even find it endearing. But after a certain age it violates social mores and becomes increasingly unacceptable. The American Dental Association recommends parents take proactive measures to help kids break the habit once their permanent teeth start to erupt, due to potential oral health and teeth alignment complications. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists exposure to communicable diseases and social stigmatization as deterrents. Search the internet and you will find a surplus of articles on the many ways to “encourage” your child to quit the thumb habit, each one warning against shaming but, at the same time, insisting you put an end to it before it’s too late. (Too late for what, they never say.) None of this, though, outweighs my instinct that my daughter will be fine whenever she quits. Or if she quits. For years, well-meaning family members and friends have tactfully offered their opinions on thumb sucking. I politely listen and nod, agreeing with them in a vague, non-committal way, but I’ve never taken any of the measures they’ve suggested to cure her of the habit – the apparatuses, the mitts, coating her thumb with bad tasting solutions – or, really, any measures at all. I don’t want her to be teased or chastised, and I respect the experts who warn of damage to her bite and teeth, but I simply cannot muster the concern they share. I’ve researched the long-term effects of thumb sucking, curious if such an oral fixation could be a precursor to other oral habits, like smoking or overeating. I could not find any documented correlation. There are, however, plenty of theories about why some kids get hooked and others do not. They range from food shortages and chronic hunger to working mothers, siblings, and birth order, yet they yield nothing conclusive in regards to my daughter. Obviously it is a coping mechanism and obviously its psychological purpose supplants its biological one. As one tends to do in situations like these – where both the outcome and origin is unclear – I gravitate toward the expertise of people who tell me what I want to hear, like our dentist. I can’t help but worry my daughter’s thumb sucking is my fault, that she’s inherited my anxiety, compulsiveness, or neurosis. But what does it matter? I know my daughter on a molecular level. I’ve seen her race to the car after school, knowing exactly what was coming next: She slumps into the front seat, unable to hold it together any longer, and cries from the sheer relief of release. I’ve watched the despair of her day – which is nothing more than ordinary stuff, really – choke her ability to tell me what’s wrong. I can confirm, in that moment, nothing consoles her like that thumb. To quarantine a salve like this would be deeply damaging, so we save for braces instead.

Michelle Ridell


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