Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents. She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

rsz 4 year old boy 150x150 Chewing Fingers and Sucking Them: Normal Anxiety Signs in 4 Year Olds?Question: My son, Logan, will be 5 in July. He’s recently developed a habit of chewing fingers and sucking them. He never had a dummy (pacifier), so I’m concerned it could be a sign of anxiety. Our home life is pretty free from stress, and I’ve tried teaching him breathing techniques and kiddy yoga. When he’s playing with us or his grandparents, or his 2-year-old brother Alex, the fingers don’t go near his mouth. I see him chewing fingers more when he’s watching TV or tired. Are these normal signs of anxiety in a pre-schooler?

Before responding to this father’s question on chewing fingers,  I had a few more questions for him. Here’s our correspondence:

1. How does Logan seem overall? Is he a generally happy child who enjoys learning and playing?

Dad: Logan is in constant movement (in a good way) until his head hits the pillow, then he settles and stays down through the night most nights. He loves nature shows, writing, and counting. He has always been very sensitive to the emotional state of others. He has great friendships at nursery, and many of these children will be moving up to the ‘big’ school’ with him.

2. Is it possible he’s chewing fingers to get attention or test you in some way?

Dad: I have stressed to him that he not touch dirty surfaces in public, and then pop his fingers in his mouth, but other than that I’ve been wary of doing more until I can figure out why he’s doing it.

3. Are there other indications of possible anxiety?

Dad: At times now he seems more contemplative than before, and then quickly moves to demands for attention. Occasionally this leads to quite intense crying over what to us looks like minutiae: e.g. his jumper sleeve is in his jacket the ‘wrong way’, he doesn’t want to listen to his brother’s choice of story at bedtime, etc. These instances happen rarely and normally correspond to hunger, tiredness or times where my wife and I may be stressing about time (e.g. trying to get him to swimming lessons or nursery).

4. Does little brother Alex suck his thumb, or put things in his mouth?

Dad: Alex has a dummy and we’re currently weaning him off it by putting it away when he puts it down himself, and only giving it back to him if he asks for it.


From everything you tell me about him, Logan sounds like a sensitive, happy, well-adjusted little boy. He’s thriving in every way, surrounded by adults who love him, enjoy his company, care about him, and keep him secure. So, whatever his reasons for chewing fingers now, I don’t see a big cause for alarm.

You’re right to ask about this developmental stage, though. At 4, almost 5, Logan’s at an age when kids are beginning to have a sense of their essential independence in the world—the early stages of existential angst for thoughtful, sensitive kids. For many kids, it’s a time of emergent nightmares, and worries that show themselves in habits like this. If you google ‘chewing fingers 4 year olds,’ or something similar, you’ll see how normal it is for children at this age—especially for sensitive kids—to worry more than they did before.

Logan’s also at an age when he’s getting better at self-soothing, so my best guess (based on everything you tell me about him) is that chewing fingers is a transitional activity for him, a temporary method of soothing himself, as he moves toward less obvious mechanisms for self-soothing.

I would continue with your policy of not saying much to Logan about this, other than the hygiene concerns you’ve already mentioned.

If the habit of chewing fingers lingers, however, here are some suggestions:

  1. Scientific Record: Buy a blank notebook with lined pages, where you and Logan write down episodes of chewing fingers. Record the time of day, the day of week, the setting, and the circumstance—who’s there, what else is going on. Treat it with scientific respect, and not with any kind of criticism. You and Logan can analyze the data together once you’ve got enough to show any patterns.
  2. Chewing fingers replacement. Talk to Logan about what might replace his fingers. Maybe apple slices, teething biscuits, ice cubes, or something else that’s edible and not unhealthy. Or maybe he’d like a ‘chew necklace’:
  3. Alternative hypotheses: Talk to Logan about the habit. See if he’s aware when he’s doing it, or if he’s got any ideas for why he’s doing it. Does he have teeth coming in, for example?
  4. Relaxation techniques: The yoga/breathing teaching is a great idea for all kids of this age. It can’t hurt, and it can provide excellent coping skills for him as he gets older.
  5. Aversive strategies: If Logan wants to stop chewing fingers, and has trouble breaking the habit, you might try dabbing on his fingers some hot sauce, or something else that surprises him into noticing and stopping.

More on  chewing fingers and other anxiety-related habits:

What to look for in children’s development, age 4 to 5:

When to worry:

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What do you think?

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