Raising Richmond: A boy and his thumb

Our four-and-a-half-year-old still sucks his thumb, and I can’t decide if I should care or not. Come tell me what you think…

About an hour after our son JR was born–after he and I shared that special “Holy hell, what just happened, dude?”1 time–I noticed a small callous on his upper lip.

I asked our nurse about it as she got us all tucked in for our elevator trip up to recovery.

“Ahhhhh,” she smiled. “Looks like you’ve got a thumb-sucker there. Better start saving up for braces.”

She was right, turns out. It took him a couple weeks, but JR eventually found his thumb, and from then on there was no turning back. When he was a baby, he’d spit out pacifiers with disgust–the very same pacifiers that helped soothe him during his very, very early days–and flail and root and grunt until he got that sucker in there. As he got older and his fine motor skills improved, JR developed what I call his Special Soothy Move: left thumb (his preferred side) in the mouth, right index finger gently rubbing his upper lip. Any time JR wasn’t eating or playing, he sucked his thumb–especially when he was tired or feeling anxious (which was kind of a lot for a while there).

We didn’t fight him on it because 1) it soothed him and helped him sleep, 2) IT SOOTHED HIM AND HELPED HIM SLEEP, and 3) you don’t have to retrieve a thumb from under the crib or out of the crevices of a car seat as your child wails with such ferocity that passersby think you are vivisecting him or her.2 It’s always right there, ready to go!

The only problem? It’s always right there, ready to go.

And, for us, what was once extremely convenient is probably going to turn out to be very expensive as well.

Let me put it this way: during one of JR’s first dental check-ups the dentist took one look at his mouth and said, “The orthodontist is going to loooooove you.”

I wasn’t surprised, honestly. First of all, JR comes from a long line of folks who’ve required orthodontic intervention; we knew braces were likely. Second of all, I mean, I’ve seen the kid’s mouth. Looking at him head-on, his teeth look great: straight, clean, just beautiful. But once he tilts his head back, well…sigh. It’s pretty obvious he’s going to have some issues. In addition to the overbite I so lovingly passed along to him, JR’s also got the added challenge of a front tooth, a canine, and an incisor that jut out so enthusiastically he can easily stick a finger up in the space they create. The cause for this gap is obvious because all of these wonky teeth are located on the left side of his mouth, right where he locks in his thumb for multiple hours each and every day (and night).

Now despite our dentist’s first comment, he actually ended up passing along some encouraging news. Since JR is only four-and-a-half, and our dealings with the Tooth Fairy are still a ways off, we might be able to cut additional damage off at the pass… IF we can convince JR to lose the thumb3 before his permanent teeth start showing up.

Notice the big emphasis on the word “if.”

Over the last few years I’ve watched as friends guided their little ones through bidding their pacies/nuks/nu-nus4 adieu. Because you can do that with pacifiers. You can encourage your child to pass them along to a younger sibling or friend. You can wean her off by limiting pacifier usage first to naptime and bedtime, then just bedtime, and so on. Or you can just take the pacifiers away and be done with it.

You can’t do that with a thumb. Even if a kid wants to break the habit, oftentimes that thumb will make its way back into his mouth while he’s sleeping. And choosing to ignore something that is RIGHT THERE and you know will make you feel better is hard enough for adults; I can’t imagine what it’s like for a preschooler with still-developing impulse control.

Both the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and the Mayo Clinic state that most kids stop sucking their thumbs between ages two and four. They also suggest “intervening” if the habit causes teeth to push forward towards the lip and if the behavior continues on to age five. Now that JR is closer to five than he is to four, that basically means they’re talking about him–that we need to get this figured out.

But I’m sort of torn on the issue. On the one hand, I don’t want the convenience of JR’s thumb sucking5 to keep us from addressing something that could be a real issue for him (medically and socially6). On the other, I don’t know how big of a deal we should make about this. He self-regulates pretty well, typically turning to the thumb just when he’s ready for bed or already falling asleep. Plus, to at least some degree, the damage is already done. We’ve pretty much accepted the fact that monthly visits to the orthodontist are in our future. Do we really need to push him to give up this habit (this common, natural, soothing habit) even if it won’t make much of a difference in the long run?7

I’m ready to be convinced either way, so please tell me your thoughts. And if you’re anti-thumb, I’d love to hear your suggestions on how we can coach him to drop the habit once and for all.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. I prefer this title to the whole “Magic Hour” idea some people talk about. I don’t remember much “magic” happening. Sure, there was happiness, but there was also palpable fear. 
  2. At least I hope that’s not something you find yourself doing on the regular. Or ever. If so, maybe that vivisecting thing wouldn’t be that crazy for passersby to assumer. Ok, we’ve gotten into a weird area here. Let’s move on. 
  3. Figuratively. 
  4. I find children’s pet names for things like pacifiers and stuffed animals to be one of the more redeeming qualities of the human race. I mean, NU-NU, come on! Ahhhh-dorable. 
  5. Even now it’s still his most reliable tell that he’s tired, usually showing up a good 10 minutes before other indicators like “screaming” and “acting like a tiny jerk-face.” 
  6. Many people have told me to just leave it alone and wait for peer pressure to do its thing once he gets to pre-K or kindergarten. While I get that, I think we should at least try to help him drop the habit through encouragement rather than embarrassment. 
  7. Confession: I sucked my thumb until I was six or seven years old. I can still feel the pit forming in my stomach when I heard a kid in my class say, “Only babies suck their thumbs.” From that night on I slept with my hand shoved under my pillow so I couldn’t get at my thumb. The strategy worked, but it’s kind of a sad memory for me. 

Photo by: rutty

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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