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How to Help Your Child Stop Sucking His Thumb

Thumb sucking prevention.

By
Cherylyn Feierabend,
January 16, 2010
Episode #146

How to Help Your Child Stop Sucking His Thumb

Once again, I’d like to thank Audible for sponsoring the podcast version of this episode. You can get any audiobook for free when you sign up, but you must visit http://audiblepodcast.com/mightymommy.

Today’s topic is one I’ve seen popping up around many of the parenting forums I frequent online. I’ll see questions like, “how do I stop my child from sucking his thumb?” or “Will thumb sucking really ruin my child’s teeth?” Since there are parents out there with those questions, I thought I’d do some research, ask around, and see about getting some good practical information about how to handle thumb sucking--or even if you SHOULD handle thumb sucking issues with your child.

Is Thumb Sucking Bad?

The first thing we need to recognize about thumb sucking is that it’s not an immediately bad thing. Ultrasound pictures have proven that babies are often seen sucking their thumb while still in the womb. When babies are born, sucking is one of the first actions you’ll witness them doing. It’s a natural instinct. This, of course, is necessary in order for a baby to take to nursing or to a bottle. Similarly, if you give a child a pacifier, he will most likely take the opportunity to suck on it. That action is soothing to the baby and provides comfort. Sucking will often cause a baby to relax so much that he falls asleep. So, since this action is natural and comforting, when babies find something that’s always attached to them, like their thumb, chances are, they are going to put it to use. Thumb sucking in young babies is normal and harmless. It might even help everyone get a better night’s sleep. In other words, at this point in life, thumb sucking really isn’t an issue. Let it be and keep your baby’s hands as clean as possible at all times. Avoid using any type of antibacterial cleaners on babies’ hands, but do wash well with soap and water and rinse well. Nobody wants a mouth full of soap and those antibacterial cleaners can make hands taste pretty nasty. Unfortunately I know this from experience and I don’t even suck my thumb.

When is Thumb Sucking a Problem?

If you think your child is too old to be sucking his thumb, there are some things to consider. All of the information I’ve read about thumb sucking say that it won’t actually damage the teeth or harm their growth unless the thumb sucking extends beyond four years of age. In most cases, kids tend to stop on their own. Environmental influences can make a child more aware of the fact that they shouldn’t be sucking their thumb. When a child is in school or involved in playgroups with similarly aged kids who don’t suck their thumbs, the behavior will generally cease all on its own. That--coupled with the fact that the more you nag a child to stop a behavior the more they will try to hide it from you and feel self-conscious about it--is definitely something to consider before you start taking aggressive action toward stopping the behavior. Since thumb sucking is a comfort, if your child feels worried about his thumb sucking, he might even use the behavior to comfort himself. You can see how this will simply be a vicious cycle. At such a young age, a child simply shouldn’t have this type of stress.

Your goal is to help your child stop sucking his thumb without making him feel bad about it.

How to Help Your Child Stop Sucking His Thumb

If your child has continued sucking his thumb into his fourth year, there are some actions you can take to help your child overcome the habit. I say “help him overcome the habit” because you really need to approach it in this fashion. If you jump in and try to force your child to stop, you may be met with resistance, rebellion, or some big sad eyes. Your goal is to help him stop without making him feel bad about it. Also, you want to make him feel like you are helping him stop because he wants to, not because you want him to. Sounds tricky, right? It is tricky, but you can do this. Start by explaining that you’ve noticed he’s old enough to stop sucking his thumb. Ask him if he has any ideas for how you can help him quit the habit. If he doesn’t have anything to offer, you can suggest something like, “Maybe we could put something on your thumb to remind you; how about a Band-Aid?” If he goes for that, you can let him pick out some fun character Band-Aids at the store and help him put one over the tip of his thumb as a reminder. I’ve heard of suggestions to paint yucky tasting stuff on fingers or fingernails as a prevention measure. If you do this, make sure you are using a safe product like just a drop of vinegar. Avoid spicy foods such as hot pepper sauce. You don’t want to punish the child for the behavior. You just want to bring attention to it. You can also set up a secret little signal for when he’s sucking his thumb and he doesn’t realize it. Tell him you’ll tug on your ear or touch your nose to let him know. You want to choose something that he’ll notice, but that will be somewhat discreet to others. That will help him save face in public. You don’t want to bring additional attention to the behavior. Plus, it’s always fun to have a secret signal!

How to Stop Thumb Sucking for Good

Finally, once you’ve convinced your child to make the change, continue to encourage and reward him when he’s successful. It may take a while to break the habit, but it can be done. When you see him slipping into the old habit of thumb sucking, instead of drawing attention to it, distract him. Hand him a toy or a book. Put something into his hand so that he can’t have his thumb in his mouth. Remember, it’s a habit more than a behavior so you don’t want to punish your child for it. And it’s a habit that grows out of a natural instinct at birth. As I said earlier, most kids will simply grow out of it, but if they don’t, you should definitely encourage them to break the habit to avoid any dental problems moving forward. Don’t forget to mention that hands are often covered with germs and we absolutely don’t want dirty, germy hands in our mouth. Yuck!

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As I mentioned earlier, we are once again sponsored by Audible.com, the Internet's leading provider of spoken word entertainment. This week there is a meme being passed around Facebook asking everyone to post pictures of themselves from their teen years. Looking back through my pictures reminded me of my own teen awkwardness and the books I read back then. One of my favorite authors has always been Judy Blume. One of her books that I read multiple times as a teenager was Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. This book and many others by Judy Blume are now available in audiobook form on Audible.com. You could choose Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself as your free audiobook download from Audible.Com. You can get a free audiobook to keep when you sign up today, but you must visit http://audiblepodcast.com/mightymommy.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.

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This is your friend the Mighty Mommy wishing you happy and fun parenting!

Child Sucking Thumb image from Shutterstock

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