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Study Says Thumb Sucking May Help Keep Children From Developing Certain Allergies

BOSTON (CBS) -- Like lots of kids, when Gracie Ingram was a baby, she used her hands to soothe herself.

"When I was little instead of sucking a pacifier I sucked my fingers instead," says Gracie.

And like lots of parents, her dad, Chris Ingram, couldn't seem to stop her.

"We felt like we ought to discourage it but she was pretty tenacious," explains Chris.

But Gracie may have been doing a good thing. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics shows children who bite their nails and suck their thumbs are about one third less likely to develop certain allergies.

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A recent study says thumb-sucking may not be all that bad for kids. (WBZ-TV)

"Cat, grass, house dust mite, and dog," says Professor Malcolm Sears at the McMaster University School of Medicine. "Those were reduced , some significantly, some borderline."

Researchers say the  findings may be another example of what's called the "hygiene hypothesis," the idea that being too clean may increase a child's risk of allergies.

"Early exposure to dirt is not a bad thing," explains Professor Sears. "When they suck their thumbs or bite their nails, they're exposing themselves to additional microbes or dirt which is stimulating the immune system."

That's not to say that parents should encourage their kids to take up nail biting and thumb sucking--but as one mom suggests, just let kids be kids.

"You should be out playing in the grass and playing in the dirt, right?" asks Salima Milliot. "That's what kids should do."

While some parents worry about the impact that thumb and finger-sucking can have on tooth development, that really doesn't become a concern until a child's permanent teeth come in, usually after age 5. Parents can consult their child's dentist for further advice.

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