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Thumb Sucking Is a Learned Behavior and a Habitual Action

In today’s society, concerned parents will find numerous theories on the internet as to why children begin to suck their thumbs and why they can’t simply stop. Thumb sucking is common for young children around the globe, and anyone who researches the subject may come across limitless opinions and perspectives. Nonetheless, is the prevalent childhood practice good? Bad? Normal? What do the experts believe?

These quandaries lead to another pressing question: what exactly is thumb sucking? Is the noticeable pattern a learned childhood behavior or an addictive habitual action? Remember that humans are naturally creatures of habit and routine, but deliberate choices and conscious intentions do not determine every aspect of a person’s life.

Regardless of age, routine actions and thoughts are simply a part of everyday living. Here is a closer look at why we can look atnon-nutritive childhood thumb sucking as a learned behavior and habitual action.

The Difference Between Nutritive and Non-Nutritive Sucking

Sucking behaviors during early childhood typically stem from an inherent physiological need to attain nutrients. At the core, the sucking sensation is about feeding. All children have the innate, biological reflex of nutritive sucking. At the same time, a study by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry reports that between 70-90% of children have a history of a non-nutritive sucking habit during the first few years of life.

Non-nutritive sucking involves going through the motions of sucking for a reason other than mere hunger. Instead, young children seek comfort. Within the group of non-nutritive sucking habits, you’ll find oral habits developed by babies or infants other than breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. Thumb sucking is a natural reflex that falls under the category of non-nutritive sucking habit and is the most common aside from using a pacifier. Other non-nutritive sucking habits include sucking on blankets, toys, other fingers, toes, and various objects.

Again, young children—age three and under—generally form these habits as calming or self-soothing behaviors. Ergo, many medical professionals consider thumb sucking as an adaptive habitual activity that either instantly provides a sense of relief or otherwise serves as a stimulation source.

The Effects of Formed Oral Habits

The formulation of oral non-nutritive habits has positive and negative effects on infants. Non-nutritive sucking customarily occurs when a child feels scared, anxious, exhausted, stressed, bored, or apprehensive. For this reason, the use of a pacifier or thumb for sucking can help self-manage emotions, promote relaxation, center attention, and generate feelings of comfort and safety. These effects are beneficial when a child is still young but can have possible consequences down the road.

Sucking as a Learned Behavior

Thumb sucking is a learned behavior and habitual action. How come? As the Mayo Clinic Staff acknowledges, babies have natural rooting and sucking reflexes. However, non-nutritive sucking is an oral habit that can be potentially preventable or suppressible with the appropriate approaches. While natural, we can look at thumb sucking as learned behavior developed from varying entities or influences in a child’s environment.

Learned behaviors may have instinctive causes but mainly derive from environmental changes. Simple habituated behaviors such as thumb sucking play a significant part in the growth and development of young children.

Learned vs. Innate Behavior in Humans

Is thumb sucking more of a learned or innate behavior? The answer to that question depends on the intensity, frequency, and duration of the action. In the context of psychology, the term “learned behavior” is definable as a response performed in the wake of an experience. Conversely, the term “innate behavior” refers to an involuntary response that occurs without the aid of past experience.

In this sense, prolonged or persistent thumb sucking is a learned behavioral reaction. A child learns to maintain their sucking habit because the behavior has previously provided comfort or entertainment during past experiences.

Sucking as a Habitual Action

On the other hand, the American Academy of Pediatrics lists thumb sucking as one of the most common childhood habits. Habitual actions are anything an individual performs repeatedly and subconsciously until the practice becomes automatic. Essentially, a habit is any action performed during daily life, and can become an addiction that serves life-enhancing purposes. When prolonged for too long, thumb sucking is one habitual action that can become quite difficult to break.

When Everyday Customs Become Addictions

The experts at Psychology Today similarly believe thumb sucking to be the earliest known addiction. If this self-comforting habit does not fade before a child reaches school age, when children develop greater self-control and understanding, concerned parents can take action. Everyday habits that become intense or addictive actions are not easy for a child to break on their own. Sometimes the habit becomes outside of their own consciousness or awareness.

Is Thumb Sucking Good, Bad, or Normal?

Depending on the context, thumb sucking is altogether good, bad, and normal. Each child has their own sucking behaviors differing in scope, scale, and reasoning. Assessing the history of the frequency, intensity, and duration of their developed non-nutritive habit is essential to determine if intervention is necessary—and target what is the best approach to take. The next step should help a child overcome the habit or successfully produce a behavioral change.

When and How To Discourage Sucking Habits

Before damage is done, concerned parents should know about the dangers of thumb sucking for their children. While not all thumb sucking causes equal damage, the consequences of prolonged or persistent sucking behaviors can affect the healthy growth and development of a young child. If you’re concerned, keep a close eye on the direction and intensity of your child’s habit.

Children who passively rest their thumb in their mouth will not have the same dental, oral, or orthodontic problems, unlike those who continue to suck aggressively. Age is another factor to keep in mind. Thumb sucking becomes a genuine concern as soon as permanent teeth begin to come in.

Children who do not stop the habit after the age of four to five may need parental support, guidance, or intervention. After monitoring their behavior, consider effective techniques such as gentle reminders, positive reinforcement, prevention devices, or guard appliances to break the habit for good. Learn more about the quick and efficient solution of the AeroThumb on our website.


Common Childhood Habits” from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Lessons from Thumbsucking, the Earliest Addiction” from Psychology Today

Non-nutritive sucking behaviors in preschool children: A longitudinal study” from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry

Thumb sucking: Help your child break the habit” from Mayo Clinic