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Discover How Oral Fixation Causes Thumb Sucking in Children

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Many psychologists believe human character or personality begins to develop immediately after birth. In accordance with these deductions, early childhood is a critical and influential time of life. An innate hunger—one that focuses its vigor on certain parts of the body—is the primary driver of growth during early childhood development.

A theory by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, states that human beings seek pleasure from various areas of the body during corresponding developmentally appropriate stages. For infants, the primary source of interaction and exploration with their environment occurs orally.

Many young children seek oral stimulation for comfort and pleasure during this phase. For this reason, rooting, biting, chewing, and sucking reflexes remain incredibly significant. Parents find this essential developmental experience involves common sucking behaviors, such as pacifier use or digit sucking. Yet, prolonged engagement in these behaviors can lead to an infatuation known as oral fixation. Discover how oral fixation causes thumb sucking in children with this guide.

What Is an Oral Fixation?

Freud is the one who initially contrived the term oral fixation; this innate, fixed behavior occurs when a child strongly craves or seeks out sensory oral pleasures.

Young children with an oral fixation have an intense desire to place various objects around or in their mouths, even after the appropriate phase of exploration. Ergo, an oral fixation is any prolonged or persistent focus on self-soothing stimulation after an earlier stage of development.

The Oral Stage: A Freudian Theory

All infants go through an appropriate oral stage of development. This normal oral stage typically occurs from birth to around 18–21 months of age, but can differ based on societal traditions and child-rearing preferences. During this timeframe, infants seek self-stimulating pleasure from the mouth through common behaviors, such as eating, nursing, biting, chewing, or sucking on paper, clothing, fingers, etc. Very young children naturally learn and explore their environments through these actions.

As Healthline agreeably points out, conflicts in the oral stage cause oral fixations long after infancy. An infant may develop a persistent oral fixation when stimulation experiences cause too much or too little satisfaction. A child who regularly engages in these continued oral habits may have unmet needs that require closer attention.

The Psychology: Why Children Experience Oral Fixations

Is oral fixation a real childhood disposition? How can developed oral fixations lead to prolonged or problem-causing habits? While the Freudian theory may not be 100 percent proven accurate, occurrences of oral fixation are genuine and commonly seen throughout childhood experiences. Oral fixations may be caused by triggers in the current environment, but often stem from unresolved issues that occurred during the infant oral stage.

A child’s experience during this time can invariably affect their personality as they age and lead to oral addiction habits. Some children have an oral fixation due to learned or emotional behavior during the oral phase—such as being weaned too early or too late—or having a heightened hypersensitivity that requires or craves more oral stimulation.

Theories of Emotional and Learned Behavior

In a professional case report published by the International Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry, pediatric specialists note that “Thumb sucking is a form of non-nutritive sucking occurring as early as the 29th week of gestation and is seen commonly in infants and peaks at 18 to 21 months of age.” They also mention various theories about oral fixations—particularly non-nutritive sucking—that state fixed behavioral habits persist past that age range due to physical or emotional stimuli.

Therefore, oral fixation or regression to an earlier development stage can be a sign of emotional interference. On the other hand, an oral fixation may be rooted in a learned adaptive response, acting as an outlet for the innate childhood sucking reflex.

Thumb Sucking: An Oral Fixation Symptom

Based on the aforementioned theories, there can be a wide array of reasons explaining why the persistent need for oral stimulation exists in children. Thus, oral fixation causes thumb sucking through a myriad of potential childhood behaviors, situations, or experiences. A child’s individual development plays a pivotal role in the formation of a habit. Either way, digit sucking is the most prevalent oral habit and a common oral fixation today.

Non-nutritive sucking has its benefits for infants, but the fixed behavior becomes harmful to human health after the appropriate stage of development. At this time, behavioral modification may be necessary to break the addictive habit and ensure future wellness.

Life-Enhancing Purposes vs. Life-Diminishing Consequences

Oral fixations are addictive behavioral habits. In the context of thumb sucking, this everyday behavior has both life-enhancing purposes and life-diminishing consequences. The matter of which depends critically on the age of the child and their current stage of development.

According to the experts at Psychology Today, the downsides of thumb sucking begin to outweigh the gains in toddlerhood. Remember, infants turn to this oral fixation to self-soothe, fall asleep, find pleasure, or beat boredom during the early years. These are positive motivations for those at the appropriate development level, but it’s important to help “children of this age find other solutions to these natural challenges.” If not redirected or self-controlled, some damaging consequences may arise.

The Effects of Prolonged Non-Nutritive Sucking

After starting at a young age, an oral fixation habit can continue into adulthood if not addressed. If a child does not outgrow the fixation themselves, external support or guidance is beneficial. Parents or guardians should pay close attention to their child’s sucking habits to ensure their long-term health and wellness.

When prolonged, this oral habit can become problematic to mouth, teeth, and jaw development, especially once permanent teeth erupt. The pressure from persistent thumb sucking can narrow the jaw and cause awkward teeth spacing, protrusion, or misalignment, which damages the development of a proper bite.

Addressing the Childhood Addiction: Habit-Breaking Tactics

Currently seeking treatment for your child’s digit sucking habit? If previous home remedies have failed, search for proven effective solutions to help create an adequate plan of action.

Concerned parents wondering how to break thumb sucking habits can turn to the AeroThumb from TGuard. Our high-rated thumb guard device acts as a physical barrier and deters inappropriate oral behavior. Learn more about our specially designed treatment kit on our website.


Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development” from Verywell Mind

Lessons from Thumbsucking, the Earliest Addiction” from Psychology Today

Three-Alarm System: Revisited to treat Thumb-sucking Habit” from the International Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry

What Is Oral Fixation?” from Healthline