What if everything you learned in kindergarten isn’t true? If you were told not to suck your thumb or pick your nose, that just might be the case.
According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, children who suck their thumbs may have a lower risk of developing allergies. Another study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) supports nose-picking — and eating what’s picked — because nasal mucus, commonly known as “snot” among the kindergarten crowd, forms a barrier against cavity-causing bacteria and could also defend against respiratory and other infections.
“According to the ‘hygiene hypothesis,’ an environment that is too clean contributes to the development of allergies,” says Dr. Michal Goldberg, a board-certified pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Just like dog ownership, using less antibacterial soap and not over-sanitizing everything, bad habits such as nose-picking and thumb-sucking can actually be good for kids in that they may help decrease allergies.”
Dr. Goldberg says that she generally offers reassurance to parents of thumb-suckers, adding that another benefit of thumb-sucking is self-soothing. Children tend to suck their thumbs when they’re anxious to help calm themselves.
“I would far prefer to have a child who can settle down via thumb-sucking than one who has a hard time calming herself,” she says. “Most thumb-sucking stops by the time kids reach school age, once peers start to comment on the behavior.”
However, thumb-sucking can lead to dental malocclusion — a misalignment of teeth. Dr. Goldberg recommends that if you notice that your child’s thumb-sucking is changing the shape of the mouth, talk to your pediatric dentist.
Some children also get dry, irritated skin on the thumb due to sucking. To help with eczema, Dr. Goldberg suggests putting vegetable shortening on your child’s thumb — it is safe for eczema and is edible. However, if your child has red or inflamed skin, which could be signs of a skin infection, make an appointment to have the thumb evaluated and talk to your child’s doctor about tips to help stop the habit.
“The best way to distract a child from thumb-sucking is to ignore the behavior altogether,” she says. “You can offer praise when you ‘catch’ them not sucking their thumb, though that sometimes can serve as a reminder to put it in the mouth.”
Regarding nose-picking, Dr. Goldberg says that, too, is a common and natural behavior, even among adults, who usually do it in private.
“The biggest issue with nose-picking is social stigma and sometimes causing a nosebleed,” she says. “If you see your child picking his nose, offer him a tissue and ask him to wash his hands.”
If your child recurrently picks his nose, Dr. Goldberg recommends the following:
- Try nasal saline gel or drops, or water-based ointment inside the nose, as well as a humidifier at night, to help keep the nose moist, which decreases nosebleeds and dryness that sometimes causes kids to pick
- Keep the nails short to prevent irritation inside the nose
- Finally, keep the hands busy to keep them out of orifices such as the nose and mouth
Talk to your child’s doctor if you are concerned about any of your child’s “bad habits,” which might actually be doing some good. It is also important, Dr. Goldberg says, to watch how you respond if your child sucks her thumb or picks her nose. “Try not to shame her, as the behavior is natural,” she says.