Give the thumb: fix thumb sucking in a few easy steps

While it is perfectly reasonable to want your child to stop thumb sucking, it can be good to know that some of the perceived dangers of thumb sucking may not be based on facts. Here are some common misconceptions:

Myths

1. My child will continue to suck his thumb when he is 12 years old!

It is not probable. Statistics show that less than 9% of children who suck their thumb are still over the age of 5, and the vast majority quit between the ages of 2 and 4. And of those kids who still suck their thumb at 5, most will stop. as they begin to identify with their peer groups and don’t want to be the only ones in kindergarten with their thumbs in their mouth at story time.

2. It will ruin your teeth

This may be true, but only after children get their permanent teeth, which will begin to occur between the ages of 6 and 8. In older children, chronic finger sucking can begin to change the shape of the oral cavity. But thankfully the vast majority of children will have stopped on their own by then anyway.

3. He’s using it as a crutch

While it is true that young children who find that their thumbs are used to feel comfortable, this does not necessarily mean that they cannot learn the coping mechanisms to deal with stress or to calm themselves later in life.

4. A pacifier is better

Many parents tell me that they would rather have their child use a pacifier, because at least it can be removed. But in my experience, a lot of parents say this and then they don’t actually take it off! If the pacifier is your child’s sleeping accessory, and you use it for comfort, then it becomes just as difficult to remove it from the child. Many parents let the pacifier stay longer than planned. I had a client who confessed that he still let his 5-year-old son sleep with his pacifier for this very reason.

So with these common fears out of the way, there really is nothing right or wrong, just personal parental preference. Just like some parents use timeouts and others don’t, there are many different ways of doing things. If you’ve decided that you should stop thumb sucking, here are some ways to help your child stop sucking for good. These tips are designed for children ages 3 and up.

The key to solving thumb sucking is getting to the heart of why your child is thumb sucking. Every child is different, and some may only use their thumb when trying to sleep, others only when upset, and still others at every opportunity. In all cases, it has become a habit and, as we all know, habits are hard to break. One really effective tool is the reward system. Offering the benefit of NOT thumb sucking is sometimes all the encouragement children need.

Four Steps to Help Children Stop Thumb Sucking

Step 1. It is important to find out why and when your child uses his thumb. During the first week, have a pen and paper handy, and write down each time you see your child’s thumb in his mouth. At the end of the week, go through your list and see if there is any consistency. Do you always suck your thumb around 4pm while watching your favorite show? Does he suck his thumb around the other young children in the playgroup because he is nervous or shy?

Step 2. Identify what the reward is for your child. For example, if you notice that every time you hurt yourself you stick your thumb in, the bottom line would be that your thumb helps you deal with the pain. If you notice the thumb going in every time you are watching TV, then the thumb is used when idle.

Step 3. Now that you know what he’s using it for, you can offer him something in exchange for the thumb. For example, if he is about to watch his favorite show, offer him a plate of grapes to eat while the show airs. If he sucks his thumb when he gets hurt and just tripped on the stairs, you can run and offer him a long hug followed by a quick distraction like a favorite toy or game.

Step 4. A reward table for a completed day without sucking can be helpful. You can offer your child a gift or a small toy at the end of the day if he is successful. I also find that the more immediate the reward, the better the result. If your child is old enough, suggest that she come and tell you every time she feels like thumb sucking and don’t, so she can offer her a reward. It doesn’t have to be a great treat, just an M&M or a gummy bear for each time you resist the urge.

Dealing with nocturnal thumb suckers

Bedtime tends to be a very popular time to suck your thumb, so you will need to find some other alternative that can be just as comforting. Tying a ribbon around the thumb or wearing a lightweight pair of gloves can serve as a reminder so that when your child puts their thumb in their mouth, they receive an instant reminder of what the goals are. You can also buy your child a new sleeping toy that has a texture that they can rub with their thumb rather than suck on.

Final thoughts

Remember that bad habits are hard to break and it takes time and encouragement. I don’t find punishment or scolding works well when trying to discourage a habit. Kids are known for their power struggles and you don’t want to turn them into a battle of wills.

If the child is old enough, you can sit him down and tell him about a habit that you worked hard to break (drinking coffee or biting his nails, for example) and make it clear why you want him to stop. If you can think of a way to do it about him instead of you, you will be more successful. So, for example, if you are concerned about your teeth, you could tell how great it would be if you had the best smile in soccer photos next week. This will help to internalize the process.

Once your child sees that there are other things he can do to calm himself and has been reminded enough times to remove his thumb from his mouth, he will stop thumb sucking before you know it!

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