How to break the thumb sucking habit

Aug 18, 2009 at 2:59 a.m. ET

Need help breaking your child of the thumb sucking habit? When my oldest son was teeny-tiny, I was thrilled when he started sucking on his fingers to self-soothe. No using a pacifier or using me as a pacifier. Those fingers were soothers we'd never lose, forget, and so on. Fast forward a couple of years and the finger sucking was not as cute or desirable, but still acceptable. Fast forward still another couple of years, and it was a habit we were actively trying to break!

Thumbsucking Girl

Thumbsucking is extremely common among infants and young toddlers, and is a natural response to the urge to suck. Most kids outgrow it naturally - and focusing on it as an issue in younger children may contribute to the habit being harder to break. For the most part, it's a behavior to be ignored. But when should you step in and try to help your child break the habit?

As children get older, they may become more self-conscious about their thumbsucking and this often will get them to stop on their own - though sometimes it has the opposite effect and they feel they need that self-soothing even more! But if thumbsucking continues after about age four or five, it might be time to help your child along.

Dental and speech issues

Since prolonged, vigorous thumbsucking can lead to dental and speech issues, working with a medical professional to discuss the downside of the behavior with the child can work very well. This is just what we did. On our son's first visit to a pediatric dentist, she discussed with him how continuing to suck his fingers might cause teeth to be out of line and thus need further dental attention. She asked him to please stop doing it - and there was something about this authority figure (that was not his parents) that had a real effect on him. He stopped sucking his fingers completely within a week.

While it may not be so easy in your situation, medical professionals can help provide information and suggestions to both you and your child, possibly identify any other issues that might be contributing to the habit - and maybe even refer to other professionals for specific input and treatment, if necessary.

"Thumb sucking is normal in young children and isn't an orthodontic problem unless it persists when the permanent teeth come in," says orthodontist Terry Pracht, D.D.S., president of the AAO. "If a child is still thumb sucking at about age 7 when the upper front teeth start to erupt, it can not only affect the teeth, but the shape of the jawbone."

Distractions and rewards

As with many habits, setting small goals, finding distractions and rewarding successes goes a long way to breaking the habit. Make a plan with your child for some of these small goals.

Distractions that occupy the hands are a great way to help break the habit, particularly if your child tends to suck his thumb during stressful times. Something your child can squeeze, perhaps, or hold onto. In contrast putting a bandage on the thumb as a reminder not to suck it can help your child think more consciously about when he or she sucks the thumb and why.

DO all you can to try to support your child in this effort, of course. There may be setbacks along the way, but getting angry may only draw out the problem.

When your child has finally achieved his or her goal, definitely offer a reward and lots of praise. It's a big achievement.

Tell us: How did you help your child break the thumb sucking habit? Comment below!

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