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Thumb Sucking: Helping Your Child Break the Habit

Jen Betterley

Published on: May 27, 2011

When to worry about your child's thumb suckingYou adored watching your baby fall asleep each night — those sweet, sleepy sighs, her thumb tucked gently into the comforting nook of her mouth.

But now that she’s walking, talking and growing into a preschooler, the thumb sucking has passed “cute” and headed straight toward “worrisome.” You’re picturing a future full of dental problems, teasing and endless efforts by you and others to get your child to break this self-soothing habit.

Pediatric dentist Purva Merchant sees young thumb sucking patients and worried parents on a regular basis at her practice, Seattle Kids Dentistry. “Ninety percent of children will have some kind of non-nutritive sucking habit at one time in their life or another,” she says. “It’s normal.”

It’s easy to understand why this habit is hard to break; it’s the same sucking action that an infant uses for bottle feeding or breastfeeding. Merchant says about two-thirds of these habits will end by the age of 5, as the child begins to rely on other forms of comfort and security.

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentists reports that most children will outgrow thumb sucking on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. Merchant echoes this notion, but also suggests that parents consider three key factors when determining if their child’s thumb sucking habit is becoming excessive:

1. Intensity: How hard is your child sucking his thumb?
2. Frequency: How often does the sucking occur during the day and evening?
3. Duration: How long is your child sucking his thumb?

Though each child’s habit should be handled uniquely for that particular child, Merchant says that parents generally shouldn’t worry until their child is preschool age. “With toddlers, parents can passively intervene by using positive reinforcement, praise and trying to divert the habit by keeping their child’s hands busy,” she says. “After the age of 3, you’ll want to begin using a reminder system, rewards and potentially, counseling.”

thumb sucking home remedies

Margaret Schultz’s 4-year-old daughter has been a thumb sucker since birth. Concerned about the dental and social issues their daughter might one day face, the Schultzs have tried several home remedies, hoping one of them will help her lose the thumb habit. They’ve let her suck on their fingers as she falls asleep, tried relaxing deep-breathing exercises at bedtime, sung lullabies and most recently, covered their daughter’s thumbs with Band-Aids each night.

“We were starting to run out of Band-Aids and felt like maybe there was another way that wouldn’t require going through all our first-aid supplies,” says Schultz, a Mountlake Terrace resident. “We tried a sock, but she just took it off.”

The Schultzs are giving it one more shot with a reward system. So far, small daily prizes — screen time, promise of a bicycle — seem to be working.

Some kids are so ready to give up the thumb that a home remedy does just the trick. That’s what happened with Shoreline parent Chuck Gamble’s daughter. “The thumb went right in once she had fallen asleep,” says Gamble. “My solution was to take a winter glove and cut off all the fingers except the thumb. She wore this to bed every night and after a couple weeks, she had broken the habit.”

When home remedies aren’t enough

Some children require professional intervention to help them stop sucking their thumbs, particularly if their oral health seems threatened. Dentists can evaluate risk factors and recommend specialists if needed.

Helping your child quit thumb suckingOne of these specialists, Nancy Magar (she’s an orofacial myologist), uses positive behavior modification with her young patients, including a rewards chart to track progress. She shows her patients photos of the effects of thumb sucking and calls them daily to offer encouragement. “The child has to have the desire to stop,” says Magar, whose practice is based in Bellevue. “It’s a behavioral problem . . . but if the child can quit for the first week, it’s usually smooth sailing from there.”

Not long ago, Marie Walter’s 5-year-old daughter, Genieva, began Magar’s treatment. Within weeks, Genieva had kicked the habit she’d had since infancy. “She has completely transformed, from sucking her thumb every moment to not sucking it at all,” says Walter, a Redmond resident. “She is showing more confidence and smiling more, and her teacher can’t stop gushing about the positive changes she sees in Genieva at school. She’s doing superwell!”

Jen Betterley is ParentMap’s web editor.

6 tips for helping your child quit thumb sucking
1. Observe when, where and why your child sucks his or her thumb.
2. Identify what triggers the thumb sucking behavior (e.g., she is tired, has a blanket, is afraid, is hungry).
3. Determine what you can do to eliminate the triggers that result in thumb sucking (hide the blanket, keep snacks on hand).
4. When you observe thumb sucking, give your child something else to do with her hands (a toy, book, snack or a drink).
5. At night or naptime, go into your child’s room and gently remove her thumb from her mouth.
6. Bring to your child’s attention how pleased you are when she is not sucking her thumb.

Source: Nancy Magar

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