Chomp chomp. You see your baby opening his mouth wide, going in for the kill.. and swallowing his whole fist. Lots of saliva sprinkle around. It happens every day. Is this worrisome? Will this lead to problems in feeding and thumb-sucking when he grows up?
There are different reasons why your baby is sucking their hands and fingers: they could be hungry, teething, exploring their environment, or self-soothing. This behavior is normal and can be seen in most infants but should stop before the preschool years (2-4 years old). Seek to consult with a physician if this behavior continues beyond 3-4 years old.
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Your little one is just hungry
If you see your baby suck on their fingers or hands, chances are, they’re hungry! The tips of an infant’s fingers are slightly shaped like a mother’s nipples. When they come into contact with their mouth, they feel that they’re sucking on their mother’s breast.
If your child exhibits this behavior and they were last fed a few hours ago, it’s time to feed again. Feeding schedules shouldn’t be strict and fixed, so you can be flexible with feeding times.
Other signs of hunger include fussiness, rooting, open eyes, smacking of the lips, and crying.
Teething usually starts at 4 months old. It may end by 6-7 months but could persist up to 2 years old. Babies will feel soreness in their gums during this time. Being able to rub their teeth and gums against their hands and fingers helps ease the pain.
You can help your baby feel better by letting them chew on a teething toy. A good example is a teething ring. Just make sure that the toys you buy are made of non-toxic materials and do not break easily.
Another way to help your child is to give oral acetaminophen at the right dose.
Your child wants to explore!
Your child is learning about the world beyond observation – this includes exploring what’s around them using their hands and mouth. Realizing they are able to control their hands makes them all the more excited to explore further and continue sucking on their fingers.
If your child puts their hands in their mouth because they want to explore, watch for tiny objects that your child may pick up and swallow. Make sure your child’s environment is organized and clean.
It’s best to keep potentially dangerous things out of reach.
Time to self-soothe
Yes, infants can feel stress too! Some babies cope with stress by sucking on their hands or fingers. Stressors include feeling alone, lots of noise, new people, and bright lights. This calms them down and helps them focus on something other than the stressor.
One way to help your child is to soothe by carrying them comfortably or having some skin contact such as your arm or hand over their belly.
Some infants will end up falling asleep while self-soothing. This behavior is similar to falling asleep with a nipple in their mouth and may be difficult to stop. When your child is drowsy but not yet completely asleep, gently remove the nipple or their fingers from their mouth.
Should I worry? What should I watch out for?
If this behavior has been bothering you, don’t worry — the American Dental Association reports that babies sucking their hands shouldn’t be a problem until they’re about 4-5 years or older.
Usually, there’s nothing harmful with letting your child suck on their hands and fingers. But if your baby’s hands aren’t clean or their immediate environment is not clean either, they can get sick and develop an infection.
Make sure that your child did not pick up any small objects before placing their hands in their mouth. Swallowing foreign objects is a potential emergency. If this happens, you need to bring your child to the nearest healthcare provider or hospital for further assessment.
When will hand eating stop?
As your child grows older, they will start exploring the world in other ways. Between ages 2-4 years old, most kids change track and stop thumb-sucking.
If you notice that your child still sucks on their thumb (or hand) by the time they attend preschool, it may be best to seek consultation with a doctor to rule out any behavioral disorders.
It is mostly normal for babies to suck on their hands up before they enter preschool. There could be many explanations for this behavior.
Your child may be hungry, teething, exploring their environment, or soothing themselves from stress.
You can help your baby overcome this behavior by offering some physical comfort or alternatives from chewing their own fingers.
Sarah is a healthcare writer, motivated by her love of reading books while growing up. She took up human biology and further studies in medicine, in order to fulfill her passion for helping kids. While she isn’t a biological mother yet, she has taken a young Siberian husky named Indy under her wing. She would love to someday travel the world and meet kids from different cultural backgrounds.