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How to Move Away from Thumb Sucking

It’s happened. Your child has discovered that sucking his thumb is even better than his favorite toy or special blanket when it comes to comfort. He sucks his thumb while falling asleep, while watching TV, when he’s scared, and when he’s upset. And maybe up until now it hasn't been an issue as he was only using it for a few minutes at a time to soothe himself, 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:

Common Myths:

My child 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 storytime.

It will ruin his 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.

He’s using it as a crutch

While it’s true that young children who discover their thumbs do use thumb-sucking 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.

A pacifier is better

Lots of parents tell me they would rather their child use a pacifier because at least they can take it away when needed. But in my experience, many 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 to.

So with these common fears out of the way, there really is no right or wrong, only a personal preference. Most experts would discourage parents from pressuring a child younger than five to stop sucking their thumb but if you’ve decided the habit needs to go, here are some ways to help your child give it up for good. (These tips are designed for children 3 years and up.)

How to Stop Thumb Sucking

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 use it at every opportunity! In each case, it has become a habit and as we all know, habits are hard to break. Here's how to find out when and why your child sucks his thumb.

Step 1

For the first week, keep a pen and paper handy and write down each 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. Does he always suck his thumb around 4 p.m. while watching his favorite show? Does he suck his thumb around the other toddlers at the playgroup because he’s nervous or shy?

Step 2

Identify what the payoff is for your child. For example, if you notice that every time he hurts himself he sticks his thumb in, then a conclusion would be that his thumb helps him deal with pain. If you notice that the thumb goes in whenever he’s watching TV, then the thumb is being used when he’s idle.

Step 3

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

Step 4

A reward or sticker 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 each successful day. I also find that the more immediate the reward, the better the outcome. If your child is old enough, suggest that he lets you know each time he feels like sucking his thumb but chooses not to. At this time, there should be a lot of praise and possibly a small reward like an M&M or a sticker on a chart.

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. A great alternative can be a new, textured sleep toy that he can rub his thumb against instead of sucking it. Another option is wearing a light pair of gloves to bed to work as an immediate reminder as to what the goals are.

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 the last thing you want is for it to turn into a battle of wills. After understanding the reason behind the habit, remaining consistent with your response, and using the appropriate redirection, you will kick this thumb-sucking habit in no time!