Solving thumb sucking in a few easy steps
Its happened. Your child has discovered that sucking their thumb is even better than their favorite stuffed cat or paw patrol blanket, when it comes to comfort. They suck their thumb while falling asleep, while watching TV, when they're scared or when they're upset. And maybe up until now it hasn't been an issue, as they would only use it for a few minutes at a time to soothe them-self, but now you’re thinking it's time to try to cut this habit out.
While it’s perfectly reasonable to want your child to stop, it might be good to know that some of the perceived dangers of thumb sucking might not be based on fact. Here are some common misconceptions:
1. My kid will still be sucking his thumb when he’s 12!
Not likely. Statistics show that less than 9% of children who suck their thumbs still continue over the age of 5, with the vast majority breaking the habit between the ages of 2 and 4. And of those kids still sucking their thumbs at 5, most will stop as they start to identify with their peer groups and don’t want to be the only one in kindergarten with their thumb in their mouth at story time. Plus with the amount of hand-sanitizer we use today, the taste alone will probably turn them off pretty quick!
2. It will ruin her teeth
This can be true, but only after the kids get their permanent teeth, which will start to happen between 6 and 8. In older kids, chronic thumb sucking can start to change the shape of the oral cavity. But luckily, the vast majority of kids will have stopped on their own by then anyway. If you are concerned, bring this up at their next dentist appointment and get a professional opinion on the matter.
3. Using it as a crutch
While it’s true that young children who discover their thumbs do use it for comfort, this doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to learn coping mechanisms for dealing with stress or self-soothing later in life.
4. A pacifier is better
Lots of parents tell me they would rather their child use a soother, because at least they can take the soother away. But in my experience lots of parents say this and then don't actually take it away! If the soother is their child's sleep prop, and they use it for comfort, then it becomes just as difficult to take away from the child. Lots of parents let soother-use linger on way longer than they planned too. I had one client who confessed that she still let her 5-year-old sleep with his soother because of this very reason.
So with these common fears out of the way, there really is no right or wrong, only a personal preference of the parent’s. Just like some mothers use bottles and others breastfeed, or some parents use time-outs and others don’t, there are many different ways of doing things. If you’ve decided that thumb sucking needs to go, here are some ways to help your child give it up for good. These tips are designed for kids 3 years and up.
The key to solving thumb sucking is getting to the heart of why your child sucks their thumb. Every child is different, and some might only use their thumb when they’re trying to sleep, others only when they’re upset, and others will at every opportunity! In each case it has become a habit and as we all know, habits are hard to break. One really effective tool is the reward system. Offering a benefit to NOT sucking their thumbs is sometimes all the encouragement kids need.
But first it's important to find out why and when your child turns to their thumb.
Step 1. For the first week, keep a pen and paper handy, and write down every single time you see your child's thumb in their mouth. At the end of the week, go through your list, and see if there are any consistencies. Do they always suck their thumb around 4 p.m. while watching their favorite show? Do they suck their thumb around the other toddlers as they are nervous and a little shy? Try to find the reason why they instate this coping method
Step 2. Identify what the payoff is for your child. For example, if you notice that every time they hurt them self that they stick their thumb in their mouth, then a conclusion would be that the thumb helps them to deal with the pain. If you notice that the thumb goes in whenever they're watching TV, then the thumb is being used when they're idle.
Step 3. Remind and distract: Now that you know what they're using it for, you can offer them something in exchange for the thumb. For example, if they're about to watch their favorite show, offer them a bowl of grapes to eat while the show is on. If they suck their thumb when they get hurt, you can rush over and offer them a long hug followed by a quick distraction like a game or favorite toy. It's all about breaking that habit, and replacing the sucking with a new activity, is an almost seamless way that you can achieve this without them even realizing!
Step 4. A reward chart for a day completed with no sucking can be helpful. You can offer your child a treat or small toy at the end of the day if they are successful. I also find that the more immediate the reward, the better the outcome. If your child is old enough, suggest that they come tell you whenever they feel like sucking their thumb, but do not, so that you can offer up a reward. It doesn’t have to be a big treat, just one M&M or gummy bear for each time she resists the urge. Just be mindful of the frequency of this, as it could just be used a ploy to get a few extra gummy bears once they catch on!!
Nighttime thumb suckers: Bedtime tends to be a very popular time for thumb sucking, so you will need to find some other alternative that can be just as comforting. Tying a ribbon around the thumb, or a light pair of gloves can work as a reminder so when your child brings his thumb to his mouth he gets an instant reminder about what the goals are. You can also buy your child a new sleep toy that has texture that they can rub and explore instead of sucking their thumb. Some parents have found success with the gross tasting nail polish you can buy to stop nail biting. Read the label first and make sure it is safe and age-appropriate***
Remember that bad habits are hard to break and it takes time and encouragement. I don't find that punishment or nagging work well when trying to discourage a habit. Children are notorious for power struggles, and you don't want to turn it into a battle of wills.
If your child is old enough, you can sit them down and tell them about a habit you tried hard to break (drinking coffee or nail biting, for instance) and make it clear why you'd like them to stop this behavior. If you can think of a way to make it about them rather than you, you'll have better success. So for example, if you’re worried about their teeth, you could say how great it would be if they had the best smile at soccer pictures next week. This will help internalize the process.
Once your child sees that there are other things they can do to self-soothe, and have been reminded enough times to take their thumb out of their mouth, they'll stop sucking their thumb before you know it!