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Stop Thumb-Sucking: Helping Your Kid Kick the Habit

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Updated on Feb 22, 2012

We've all been there: your adorable toddler's walking and talking with the best of them, developing into a perfectly precocious human being. All seems to be smooth sailing until one day, you see it: the dreaded thumb clenched firmly between her tiny lips. And once it's there, it's there to stay. Soon you see your toddler sucking her thumb everywhere: in the car, at the table, on the bed...the list is endless.

Why does your little one feel the urge to stick her thumb in her mouth—and what are some possible consequences? Just like weaning off of pacifiers and baby blankies, breaking the thumb-sucking habit takes time and patience—but with a little preparation, it's easy to help your toddler kick the habit.

Why Does it Happen?

Though thumb-sucking can become a habit for anyone, anytime, anywhere, it's particularly prevalent in children aged 1 to 3. Why so common? For one thing, it's innate. Children are born with the sucking reflex to help them breastfeed, and there's evidence that this reflex kicks in even while in the womb. As a result, from their earliest age children learn to associate sucking with comfort and security, and it makes sense that they'd return to it later on.

This leads us to the central reason for thumb-sucking: it's emotionally reassuring. Children derive a gentle, calming feeling from sucking on their thumb that placates them and puts them at ease. Note that while most children choose their thumbs, others may prefer to suck on a different finger. Once a child chooses a finger, though, she tends to stick with it. Eventually, the sense of relaxation she derives from having her thumb in her mouth is so appealing, it kicks the occasional tendency into a full-blown habit.

The Consequences

Many parents think thumb-sucking is just a phase that has little bearing on a child's physical and emotional development. Though this may be true, it's important to realize that the habit does carry with it some dangerous consequences. For one thing, it can act as a replacement for real comfort and discussion of feelings with your child, teaching her to only look inward rather than outward for help and support.

Physically, thumb-sucking is also a problematic habit. The American Dental Association notes that if your child's still thumb-sucking after her permanent teeth have come in, she runs the risk of disrupting the natural growth rate of her mouth, and altering the alignment of her teeth. Parents of particularly vigorous thumb suckers, beware: the more vigorous the sucking, the higher the risk of disfiguration.

Breaking the Habit

If you're lucky, your child may outgrow the habit as she gets older and more confident (most children have outgrown it by the age of 4). For the rest of us, however, getting a child to stop thumb-sucking is often easier said than done. Here are some tips for tackling the issue of thumb-sucking:

  • Address her emotional attachment. Since many children reach for their thumb when they're feeling insecure, be sure that she knows how loved she is by everyone. Though it may seem counterintuitive when you're frustrated, be sure to give your child extra praise and affection while helping her break this habit (just be sure not to associate the praise with the act of thumb-sucking itself).
  • Give your child a reason to stop. Sit your toddler down and explain that she is becoming a "big girl", and this is such an exciting time! Tell her that if she'd like to be treated like the big girl she is, then she needs to behave like one. Explain that this means no thumb-sucking, and try leading with carrots rather than sticks: make her want to behave by showing her all the desirable activities that come with the big girl world (the ability to choose her own outfits, help prepare her lunch, etc.).
  • Get creative. Though past solutions involved bitterants and piquants, modern methods are much more humane. The American Dental Association recommends bandaging the thumb, making it physically impossible for thumb-sucking to occur. At night, try adding a sock over the thumb to ensure that the habit is broken even after-hours.
  • Curb her cravings—without sugar. Don't use lollipops or other sweet treats as a replacement for your child's habit. You'll be left with a toddler addicted to sugar as opposed to her thumb—a place where no parent wants to be!
  • Don't go it alone. Enlist the help of your spouse, older children, babysitter, and even your child's dentist so that you can ensure your toddler is being watched at all times. You don't want to create a situation where your toddler thinks she needs only stop the habit in front of you. Having allies in your war against the thumb also helps you from looking like the bad guy in the eyes of your child (think about it: if everyone thinks thumb-sucking is a bad idea, it must be one!)
  • Have patience. The thumb-sucking may make you want to rip out your hair, but snapping at your toddler can make her feel anxious, sending her right back to her comforting habit. Instead, take a deep breath and count to ten if she loses her cool. It can take up to three months for anyone to learn a new habit and make it stick.

Though breaking your toddler's thumb-sucking habit can seem like a mountain you'll never climb, have confidence in the fact that you can do it! Stick to the tips above and you'll have her mouth thumb-free in no time flat.

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