Thumb sucking: How to help children quit

When babies suck their thumb or a pacifier, it can help soothe restless or nervous feelings, but as babies grow into toddlers, thumb sucking can get in the way of normal facial and oral development. If you are reading this and you have an infant who may be able to switch from a thumb to a pacifier, I highly recommend making the switch. At some point, you’ll be able to take the pacifier away. Clearly, this is not the case with their thumb. HOW TO STOP SUCKING If you have a dedicated thumb sucker reaching age three, it’s time to help your child make a transition from thumb sucking to a new stress relieving technique, one that won’t damage their bite, teeth and jaw development. At your local bookstore, you can find several books on the subject. Many of the parents I work with like David Decides About Thumbsucking by Susan Heitler or The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit by Jan Berenstain. These books help children understand why they suck their thumb, that it is a normal part of childhood for many kids, and that there comes a time to give it up. Also, the books give children strategies to cope with giving up a habit that, frankly, just feels good. By age three, children have reached a developmental stage to self-soothe without thumb sucking; they just need some encouragement and support. These books help parents provide that support. Once the child decides to quit, the process is far easier. At age three, children often like the idea of becoming “big kids.” Many have recently moved away from diapers or are in the process, and stopping thumb sucking can be part of this changeover. By reading these books to your children and rewarding efforts to quit thumb sucking, you can keep things positive. ADDITIONAL STRATEGIES The longer your child sucks their thumb, the more difficult it can be to quit and the more harm it can do. When a child reaches age six or seven and still sucks their thumb, parents sometimes come to my office asking me to install an appliance that makes thumb sucking so uncomfortable that their child will finally stop. Before we consider this drastic measure, I typically ask the child if they want to stop. Children must decide to stop sucking on their own at this age. Once they make the decision to stop, our intervention will work. If your child does not WANT to stop sucking, it does not matter what you or I do, they will continue the habit. If a child says, “yes,” I can help with techniques to break the habit such as putting athletic tape around the thumb before they go to bed, or covering the thumb in a bad tasting film designed to prevent nail biting. These strategies help children by serving as reminders. Click here for a whole list of ideas. If the child doesn’t want to quit, it’s best to try to assess why. Is he or she trying to exert control over their life? Does he or she feel vulnerable, nervous, anxious, or insecure and lack other ways to cope? Occasionally, it can be a power struggle and they are not going to stop because they know we desire it. Addressing these issues will help your child quit thumb sucking.