Giving Up the Thumb
It’s happened. Your child has discovered that sucking her thumb is even better than her favorite stuffed bear or blankie when it comes to comfort. Or she may have started self-
soothing once you took away her pacifier. She sucks her thumb while falling asleep, when she’s scared, when she’s upset. And maybe up until now it hasn't been an issue, as she was
only using it for a few minutes at a time to soothe herself, 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 we go!
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 storytime.
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.
3. He’s 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 pacifier, because at least they can
take the pacifier away. But in my experience lots of parents say this and then don't actually
take it away! If the pacifier 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 pacifier-use linger on
way longer than they planned to. I had one client who confessed that she still let her 5-year-old sleep with his pacifier because of this very reason.
After explaining the above myths we are now left with what to do if our child is using
their thumb when they get older and have not let the habit go.
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 her 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 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 her thumb.
For the first week, keep a pen and paper handy, and write down every single time you see
your child's thumb in her mouth. At the end of the week, go through your list, and see if there are any consistencies. Does she always suck her thumb around 4 p.m. while watching her siblings play? Does he suck his thumb around the other toddlers at the playgroup because he’s nervous or shy?
Identify what the payoff is for your child. For example, if you notice that every time she hurts
herself she sticks her thumb in, then a conclusion would be that her thumb helps her deal with pain. If you notice that the thumb goes in whenever she’s just sitting on the couch, then the thumb is being used when she’s idle/bored.
Remind and distract: Now that you know what she’s using it for, you can offer her something in exchange for the thumb. For example, 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.
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 she’s successful. I also find that the more immediate
the reward, the better the outcome. If your child is old enough, suggest that she come tell you whenever she feels like sucking her thumb and doesn’t, so you can offer up a reward. It
doesn’t have to be a big treat, just one chocolate chip or gummy bear for each time she resists the urge.
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 he can rub his thumb against instead of sucking it. If these methods don’t work there are other more concrete reminders that block the thumb sucking at night that can be used.
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 the child is old enough, you can sit him down and tell him about a habit you tried hard to
break (drinking coffee or nail biting, for instance) and make it clear why you'd like him to stop
this behavior. If you can think of a way to make it about him rather than you, you'll have better success. So for example, if you’re worried about his teeth, you could say how great it would be if he had the best smile at school pictures next week. This will help internalize the process. Once your child sees that there are other things she can do to self-soothe, and has been reminded enough times to take her thumb out of her mouth, she’ll stop sucking her thumb before you know it!