Childhood thumb sucking past age five is a habit – a habit that has roots in the very earliest days of life. It is an enjoyable activity from day one (i.e., birth), often associated with early pleasurable innate physiological responses. This is the essence of why it is so hard for some children to stop the habit easily.

What does a young child equate with sucking behavior? Those first sucking experiences often represent the pleasurable feelings associated with nursing such as warmth, cuddling, mommy, and milk.

When children suck, beta-endorphin (a powerful and calming chemical) is produced and attaches to the opiate receptors in the pleasure center of the brain.

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This strong biochemical reaction from the sucking behavior results in the enjoyable and often addictive-like feelings the child (who sucks the thumb) experiences. And, that association with the pleasurable feelings it “conjures up” is what makes an oral habit so hard to "kick."

When do children typically suck? When they are bored, they may use their thumbs to stave off boredom. When children are upset, they may seek to calm themselves by sucking. And, when they are falling asleep, the thumb goes into the mouth as they drift easily off to sleep. Again, these are all triggers related to the calming biochemical effect sucking often brings.

However, most of the time the thumb goes into the mouth and the child doesn’t even realize it. It is mainly a subconscious habit. Well-meaning parents telling their children to "get their thumbs out of their mouths" often do not anticipate that this may actually weigh heavily on the child and encourage even more sucking behavior! How does this happen?

This "encouragement" reminds children that they have failed yet again in regard to behavior over which they have little to no control. This loss of control over the habit often encourages even more sucking as children seek to find comfort using their thumbs. A negative spiral ensues. Basically, the thumb slips into the mouth, the child feels bad it went in, they get upset and seek comfort, and they ultimately suck even more. It becomes a vicious cycle.