How to Help Stop Thumb Sucking

What can I do to encourage my child to stop sucking his thumb?

MOLLY: The reader added that her son is 5-years old and in preschool.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): There are a couple of ways a parent can approach this. One of the things the parent should be thinking about in the process is what might be causing the thumb sucking.

Thumb sucking can actually occur in utero; the sucking instinct is a natural, innate action for babies. Some kids, once they finish breast- or bottle-feeding, will stop sucking their thumbs and it’s no longer an issue. Other kids might continue and their thumb literally becomes a substitute for the bottle or the breast.

MOLLY: Is that what you mean by causing it?

MOM: No, I’m looking for any reasons behind the action. For some kids, thumb sucking is just entertainment, for others it becomes an unconscious habit, while others use their thumb for self-soothing. In and of itself, thumb sucking is basically a self-soothing mechanism.

MOLLY: When you say “causing,” what do you mean? That they’re missing their parents?

MOM: Not necessarily. Usually there’s some anxiety, some tension, some stress that might be causing the child to need to feel more secure and soothed. As a parent, you’ll want to pay attention to see if there are any causative factors that you can change to help your child feel more secure and safe. Thumb sucking may be a coping mechanism to tune out stress between the parents, uncertainty about the future, unpredictability from caregivers, or generalized anxiety.

If there aren’t any obviously stressful factors, the thumb sucking may have simply become an unconscious habit and the child may not really realize when or how often their thumb drifts up to their mouth. In the case of a habit, parents and caregivers can form a strategy to gently remind him or her to take the thumb out of the mouth. This shouldn’t include scolding , criticizing, shaming, or punishment, so be be to keep your tone neutral and gentle.

MOLLY: What do you say?

MOM: “Maybe you don’t need to suck your thumb right now.” Or, “Did you know that you were sucking your thumb?”  Say it nicely. Because lots of times, as the kid gets older, both the thumb sucking and the parental intervention gets embarrassing and other kids may make fun of them. Having a code word or phrase that you both know means get your thumb out of your mouth may be helpful for these kids. Something like, “Do I see a giraffe over there?”, or equally meaningless to any who might overhear, might work well.

Many parents opt to not do anything and to simply ignore the thumb sucking. They don’t even mention it and eventually the kid outgrows it on their own.

MOLLY: Well, then how long do you allow it to go on?

MOM: It depends on how often, where it happens, what the age is… Certainly by 4- or 5-years old, a habitual thumb sucker needs intervention.

Another approach might be to offer positive reinforcement for not sucking their thumb. You can offer praise or small rewards such as extra time at bedtime to play, stickers, or buying a new reading book… Whatever works. Just remember that this approach is about positive reinforcement, and you really want to avoid any negative reinforcement, such as consequences, loss of privileges, or punishment. Negative responses are really not helpful in breaking habits, and worse are shaming actions that can psychologically scar a child.

MOLLY: So you don’t want to scold them for sucking their thumb?

MOM: Right, you don’t want to do that. Of course you want to try to identify the triggers if something else is going on. You might suggest to substitute the thumb sucking with a hug, or a stuffed animal or a pillow, or something like that.

MOLLY: Every time it happens, maybe hand the child something to substitute? What about if you suggest to the kid that instead of sucking your thumb at night, let’s find a stuffed animal you can hold instead.

MOM: Good idea. Remember, too, that as the child gets older, kids at school are going to give them a hard time about sucking their thumb, and that might stop the process too. Peer pressure can have a powerful influence on breaking habits.

MOLLY: If they’re doing it out in public…

MOM:  Kids pick up on what is normal and acceptable, and, for better or for worse, will exert their influence to make others conform. When it comes to breaking the habit of thumb sucking, peer pressure can often do the trick.

MOLLY: What about asking the child to come up with ideas or suggestions that he or she would find helpful in remembering not to suck his or her thumb?

MOM: I think that’s a very good idea. I always think that’s a good idea.

MOLLY: Enlisting the child in the process…

MOM: Right, because then they become more a part of and invested in the whole program. They own it. It’s always the best thing to do, even at a very young age you just structure it for their level.

The essential concept to take away from this conversation is that you just don’t want to put too much pressure on a child to stop a habit because that kind of pressure will increase the child’s anxiety level and they’ll have more of a need for the self-soothing habit.  Avoiding raising anxiety levels when breaking a habit is a tricky road to travel, but a lot of it has to do with figuring out what might be triggering it all.

MOLLY: When you enlist the kid, what do you say?

MOM: How about a direct, simple question like, “What do you think might be a good way to remind you not to suck your thumb?”

You can even point out this is really not good for the child’s teeth and ask the pediatric dentist to speak directly to the child about what thumb sucking can do to her teeth as they grow in. Sometimes the dentist might even recommend a mouth guard or other dental appliance to help the kid stop thumb sucking because it can interfere with tooth development.

MOLLY: Hearing it from a doctor might be easier or have more validity than hearing it from a parent?

MOM: Yes, what the dentist says can have a lot of validity with a young child.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success getting your child to stop sucking their thumb. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

ding 4 comments on “How to Help Stop Thumb Sucking

  1. As the parent of a child who really loved sucking his thumb, I know how hard it is for some kids to stop – even when they want to.

    When my son was 7, our orthodontist told us that he was going to need an expander within the year and had to stop sucking his thumb before it could go on. I wasn’t willing to make my son suffer with any of the products on the market used to MAKE kids stop thumb sucking: plastic sheathes, neoprene thumb sleeves and bitter tasting ointments just to name a few. I also didn’t want him to feel bad about needing to stop sucking his thumb. So we talked about it – a lot. He wanted to stop, he just couldn’t. He would suck his thumb unconsciously during the day and all night in his sleep. First we tried using a regular knit glove, but he would pull it off in the night because his hand would get too hot. I had him sleep in my bed and spent all night pulling his thumb out of his mouth. Clearly, we needed another solution: Thumb-Thing. By eliminating all of the fingers but the thumb, his hand stayed cool and he would wear it all night. During the day he would put it on while we watched a movie or read a book, or anytime he thought he might suck his thumb. I didn’t have to do anything but make sure his Thumb-Things were clean. He never forgot to put it on at night, and instead of feeling bad about himself, he was proud.

    Wishing you and your little one all the best!
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  2. Negative reinforcement is actually the removal of an unpleasant stimulus. What you called “negative reinforcement” is actually punishment, the addition of something unpleasant. By removing something unpleasant negative reinforcement works to reinforce/enourage the preceding behavior while punishment discourages the behavior.

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