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How can I stop my child's thumb sucking?

Dr. Heather Wittenberg, PhD
Psychology Specialist

My advice is this: Pick your battles. And only pick the ones you can win. This one, you won’t win. I mean, is there any strategy or technique that actually works to make a kid stop sucking their thumb or fingers? And more importantly, is that technique worth the price you will pay, psychologically?

If you look up solutions to finger and thumb sucking on the internet, you will come across sites that suggest aversive techniques such as using nasty-tasting things, or even installing dental appliances. Yikes! While these techniques may physically stop the offending behavior, I’m really alarmed at the kind of emotional and psychological damage they could inflict. What kind of message does that send to your child? Your self-soothing strategies are so offensive to me that I will pull out the big guns to make you stop. Your efforts at learning to be independent are going to be crushed. This could set the stage for a complete withdrawal of the drive for independence, resulting in a regressed, passive child. It also could simply press the “pause” button on asserting independence, and then you’ll have major power struggles later, when you can’t simply pick them up like a football anymore. I’ve seen too many difficult therapy cases of 10- and 12-year-olds who are only starting to rebel after having their spirits crushed as toddlers. And then, the rebellion is far worse.

You should always check with your pediatrician if you have any concerns, but by and large, weird and annoying toddler/preschooler behavior is almost always transitory, and almost always normal.

Dr. Charles I. Schwartz, MD
Pediatrician

There are no surefire methods to stop your child’s thumb sucking. Some tricks are to redirect his attention to another activity. If he is older, try putting a Band-Aid on his thumb to remind him not to suck. Many children suck their thumb while holding a blanket or a stuffed animal; removing that object may help break the association of thumb sucking and holding their favorite object.

It's normal for young children to suck their thumbs. Thumb-sucking is a handy way for children to comfort and soothe themselves to sleep. Of course, you wouldn't want to see your 16-year-old walking around with her thumb in her mouth. In fact, when adult teeth come in, thumb-sucking can affect their alignment, so it's a habit that's best stopped.

Most kids will stop sucking their thumbs on their own by around age 4. If your child seems reluctant to give up the habit, try to comfort him in other ways, such as offering a favorite stuffed animal. If that doesn't work, talk to your pediatric dentist about ways to help your child stop thumb-sucking, including placing a bitter medicine, thumb guard or bandage on the thumb.

Many children tend to outgrow thumb-sucking by kindergarten. Doctors and dentists encourage parents to help them give up this habit by about age 6, when permanent teeth arrive and the sucking can cause dental problems. Comfort your child about any worries—thumb-sucking is a response to stress—and use positive reinforcement instead of scolding. At night, try using socks or gloves on the hands to discourage sucking, and be patient: It takes about 30 to 60 days to break the urge.

Dr. Todd A. Welch, DMD
Periodontist

Sucking thumbs or fingers is completely normal for babies and young children. Babies actually begin to suck on their fingers or thumbs even before they are born. The behavior provides security for young babies.

It's a way to make contact with, test and learn about the world. Recent studies have shown that pacifier use after the age of two may cause long term changes in the mouth of children and therefore recommend that pacifier use should stop by 18 months. Digit and thumb sucking tend to stop between two and four years of age without much intervention. However, some children repeatedly suck on a finger, thumb, pacifier or other objects over long periods of time. In these children, the upper front teeth may tip toward the lip or not come into position properly and the upper jaw may not develop correctly.

Make sure your child is seeing a general dentist or pediatric dentist (a dentist who has taken specialty training in children's dentistry), who will carefully watch the way your child's teeth and jaws develop, keeping the thumb sucking habit in mind at all times. Your general or pediatric dentist can also offer creative strategies to cut back and stop pacifier use in gentle ways as well as offer positive reinforcement behavior management techniques for these habits.

Behavior modification starts with appropriate rewards given at predetermined intervals or steps for both thumb and pacifier habits to gradually eliminate them. Another idea you might try is tying the pacifiers (all of them) onto helium balloons and floating them into the sky. This makes a "special star" for the child so the tooth fairy can find him or her and put a present under the pillow as a reward for stopping. Perhaps another approach is dropping off the pacifiers at the dentist's office so that they can be given to a "baby" who needs them. Formost children the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends encouraging these habits cease by age three.

Some children may need the help of both their parents and their pediatric dentist. A pacifier habit is often easier to break than a finger or thumb. When your child is old enough to understand the possible results of a sucking habit, a pediatric dentist (or a general dentist trained in pediatric techniques), can encourage your child to stop, as well as talk about what happens to the teeth if your child doesn't stop. This advice, along with support from parents, helps most children stop. If this approach doesn't work a mouth appliance that blocks sucking habits may be recommended.

Shari Green
Dental Hygiene Specialist

Plain and simple...Usually a child cannot be forced to stop sucking. Until a child is truly ready and at an appropriate age to entertain cessation, a few simple strategies may be useful to minimize the behavior. Ultimately in the small child who is not expressing a desire to stop, or showing obvious readiness, that is the goal...minimize and distract. 

Typical "triggers" are "down time." Keeping a child occupied in "trigger" environments can curb time spent with a digit in the mouth. For example, if a child loves to sit on the sofa and their thumb just "sneaks in," the strategic placement of age appropriate toys may dissuade them for the moment. Bringing these age appropriate toys in the car, another common "trigger," may also teach a child, "When I'm in the car, I don't suck...instead I play with toys." Not a bad strategy!

Digit sucking is for the most part, a subconscious habit. It is rare that a child will sit on a sofa and say, "I think I'll suck my thumb right now...” Rather, it is an "auto-response" of finger to face that is perpetuated by the fact that sucking is reinforced by the release of endorphins in the brain as a reward for the behavior. This opiate reward system is a powerful reinforcer for sustaining the habit until a child is motivated by some overriding factor to want to stop. And, as one may imagine, the motivator must be a powerful one.

If we think about this logically, what other behaviors provide a "boost" of beta endorphin? Activity. A child playing outdoors, for example, will be busy. Busy children usually don't suck. Why? One "trigger" of sucking is boredom. Busy kids are rarely bored. A physically active child also produces beta endorphin...very interesting!  

There are many excellent techniques recommended by MD's and DDS's, and these professionals are wonderful resources to open up a dialogue with about your particular child. Remember...it is OK to ask for help! 

For example, a family seeking positive strategies with an age appropriate child who wants to stop but just can't may be referred by their MD or DDS for a positive-based digit sucking cessation program. Research (Van Norman-723 clients-'97/Green-441 clients-'10) confirms a positive based digit sucking elimination program with a certified orofacial myologist is one of many techniques families may utilize to help successfully remediate sucking.

Again...a child most likely must display readiness and want to stop.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

I recommend using a behavior modification sticker system to reward for however many hours a child can go without thumb sucking (give a sticker as positive reinforcement). Giving toddlers gentle physical reminders (like taking the thumb out) can help. If positive reinforcement doesn't work, some parents have had success with putting mittens on their child's hands or applying bad-tasting nail polish to the thumbs to discourage the sucking. You can also use similar techniques if your toddler turns into a nail biter.

YOU: Raising Your Child: The Owner's Manual from First Breath to First Grade

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YOU: Raising Your Child: The Owner's Manual from First Breath to First Grade

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.