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Finally there’s some good news for kids who suck their thumbs

Bad habits suck, and of the bad habits your kids can pick up, thumb-sucking and nail-biting can be among the suckiest. It can be frustrating to attempt to break your kids of these self-soothing mechanisms, particularly because, unlike a pacifier, your children’s fingers can’t be removed and given to the “big kid fairy” (read: tossed in the trash can).

But if your child just can’t seem to let go of sticking their fingers in their mouth for one reason or another, you can take comfort in the fact that they might just get one thing good out of their bad habit: a potential resistance to allergies.

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A recent study published in Pediatrics noted that, when all other factors are accounted for, like breastfeeding and whether or not pets were present in the home, kids who couldn’t break the fingers-in-mouth habits of thumb-sucking or nail-biting after preschool were less prone to allergies and that this immunity persisted into adulthood.

One possible reason for an outcome like this has to do with something called the hygiene hypothesis. That’s the one that says it may actually not be the best idea to coat your children in a sheen of hand sanitizer before sending them out in the world, since kids need to get a little dirty to shore up their immune system. The idea is that kids who put their fingers in their mouths, whether it’s to use the built-in pacifier of the thumb or because they like to do a little nail-nibbling, aren’t just getting a little dopamine high from it; they’re exposing themselves to and developing immune system responses to a whole bunch of everyday bacteria and allergens. And that’s objectively kind of cool.

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There’s other evidence that supports allowing your kids to dig around in the dirt or sample that Mississippi mud pie, like the fact that kids who grow up in or are exposed to a less-than-sterile environment tend to make it through the other side with a little boost of immunity. That’s also true of kids who go to day care and children who have siblings. There are lots of germs to go around, which means there are tons of opportunities to strengthen the immune system.

In other words, dirt truly doesn’t hurt. Whether it’s in the backyard or under your child’s fingernails, there are worse things in the world than a little early exposure to grime. And while the effect of thumb-sucking on a child’s teeth and jaw alignment are nothing to dismiss, chances are high that your kid will end up needing braces anyway — it’s estimated that about 75 percent of kids, thumb-suckers or not, have a misaligned jaw or “bad bite.”

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So we guess this is your personal invitation to lighten up a little. Parenting is often all stick and no carrot — we wonder how each and every experience our children has might jack them up later, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But there’s something to be said for little nuggets of wisdom like this. Everything in life is a trade-off.

It is absolutely impossible to make sure your child reaps every single benefit available to them through every single experience, because it’s impossible to give your kid every single experience. Similarly, you can’t shield them from every single potential negative, bad habits just one among many examples.

Just know that there is in fact a carrot at the end of that stick. The universe tends to balance itself out, so if that thumb-sucking habit is sticking around a little longer than you’d like it to, give yourself a little break, and be assured that even the most marginal benefit is a win.

Go ahead and enjoy your carrot — just don’t wash it first.

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