Thumb Sucking: Advice on When and How to Quit the Habit

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Children sucking on their thumb (and/or fingers) is a common, normal behavior. Sucking is so naturally comforting that humans suck their fingers and toes as early as the womb. Even apes, chimps, and lemurs have been known to love the thumb![Insert cute-thumb-sucking-baby-monkey-photo here:]

Despite its normality, having a thumb-loving child causes parents concern. The fear, of course, is that their child is never going to stop. The good news is only very rare cases of this common habit will lead to a feature on TLC’s“My Strange Addiction.” 

Whew.

And the vast majority of kids will stop thumb sucking by kindergarten - on their own! 

Double whew.

However, as we know, chronic thumb sucking does have its consequences. Kids putting their (dirty) fingers in their mouths increases the risk of contracting illnesses. The skin on the chosen fingers or thumb can get calloused, dry, or infected. Sucking is socially undesired, and can lead to undeserved attacks on a child’s self-esteem. Of additional concern is potential change to the teeth or palate; resulting in problems with speech, mouth functions, or an undesired cosmetic appearance.

So, when should a parent be worried about thumb sucking?

If a child is starting to experience negative consequences of sucking behavior, physically or socially, parents may want to consider beginning an intervention plan. For some children, this could be as early as 3 years old. As a general rule, if a child is still sucking after their permanent teeth are beginning to erupt (age 5-8 years) then it is time to plan a way to help your child stop.

Which leads to the million dollar question... How do you get a kid to stop sucking their thumb?

First, let’s discuss what NOT to do: 

1. Thumb sucking should never lead to punishment.

All of us - all of us - have our vice. You know... That thing you do that drives everyone else nuts, but you just can’t stop? These “things” we do lead to self soothing and tranquility, and are often a coping mechanism for the stresses of life. Although sucking may be one behavior that drives us crazy as parents, it is an active way that our kids can decompress. Punishing them for trying to acquire that desired feeling is unfair, and ineffective.

2. Negative attention is still attention.

So for some kids, giving repeated attention to thumb sucking may actually be incentivizing some kids to continue the behavior. One commenter onFacebook stated this best, by saying,

“I have vivid memories of my own thumb-sucking habit being addressed, and it only made me want to do it more. Don't want to make that mistake with my kids.”

3. Despite impressive claims of commercially available thumb sucking products, they rarely work.

Horrible tasting elixirs, plastic guards, and gloves can be perceived by children as punishment for sucking. This leads to anger and frustration, not positive change. Although few parents may find these products successful, I believe most kids can stop sucking without having to use gadgets or gizmos.

Now, some ideas for what TO DO:

1. Take a step back, before moving forward.

When beginning any large behavior modification plan with a child, consider starting with a 4-week “parental attention moratorium.” In other words, take a 4-week break from nagging, yelling, and redirecting your child’s sucking. This will allow you to approach your plan from a position of relative peace, versus escalating an ongoing war.

2. Determine the when, where, and why.

As with most childhood behaviors, searching for the root cause of the behavior will lead to the elimination solution.

Does she only suck when she is upset or tired? Does she only suck if she is watching TV or reading? What about other things associated with her sucking? Does she only suck while holding a blanket or stuffed animal? Does she only suck in a certain place - the car or her bed?

Research suggests if you can successfully eliminate associated thumb-sucking behavior, the thumb-sucking itself will be eliminated. In other words, remove the stuffed animal and the thumb sucking will stop. Offer an age-appropriate, acceptable alternative in exchange, like a small toy or sugar-free gum. Use the knowledge you have of your own child’s sucking behaviors to determine possible alternatives.

3. Recognize the power of preparation and positive reinforcement.

When trying to modify a person’s behavior, the best results happen when they want to accomplish the goal. So, try to get your child genuinely interested in quitting, and then recognize their success.

Explain that thumb sucking is a way that they can get sick or hurt their thumb, and you want them to help keep their body heathy.Visit the library toread booksabout thumb sucking. Compare your child to the successful character in the story. Positive conversations about sucking will help your child develop their own desire to quit. Then discuss how you want to help them stop.

Tell your child that you are going to be there to remind them, keep them on track, and reward them for not sucking. Show your child how you have thought about great things they can earn for not sucking (small,non-monetary “gifts” are best!) Remember to incentivize frequently, randomly, and for very small accomplishments to get the program off the ground.

For motivation “on the go”, check outthe Marble Jar.

4. Allow for set-backs.

Don’t forget to tell your child that it is OK if they really need to suck, but define one acceptable way to do it. For example, allow sucking only in another room. Alternatively, explain that sucking time may take away some of the “points” earned from earlier in the day - no questions asked. These options allow the child to be in full control of the situation, with a positive or negative consequence by their choice.

5. Need more help?

Thumb sucking can be classified as a “orofacial myofunctional disorder.” Some children can be helped by visiting a specialist (speech therapist) trained in techniques to help these disorders. Check speech therapy centers in your area for qualified therapists.

For the most determined thumb suckers, a visit to the dentist may be needed. A dentist can determine if insertinga devicein your child's mouth might be beneficial. Fortunately, these are rarely needed.

The bottom line? Thumb sucking is normal, and most children will stop this behavior on their own. In cases where kids need help to stop sucking, choose an elimination plan based on your child’s habits and set them up for success!

For more information about thumb sucking, see this fromthe Mayo Clinic.

*Please note: I am not financially tied to any product recommendations in this post. They are meant as examples of existing products to help achieve success.