Break the Habit: How to Put a Stop to Thumb-Sucking

Everyone smiles at the image of the thumb-sucking Linus dragging his comfort blanket through all those old Charlie Brown episodes. But when it comes to being confronted with a very smelly thumb in real life, it's just not as cute. So how do you deal with that oh-so present oral fixation? Find out when it’s normal, and when to be concerned – and help your little one give up the thumb for good.

It’s Normal – Up to a Point

Many babies begin sucking their thumbs while they’re still in utero. Even after they’re born, their thumbs frequently end up in their mouths. And there’s actually a few benefits to all that sucking: It helps to develop the periorbital muscles they need to breastfeed. It provides them with entertainment and gives them a means to self-soothe. It’s also a sort of preliminary to the mouthing of objects that they will later use to explore their new world.

Outgrowing It Naturally

In the normal course of things, thumb-sucking starts before or just after birth and usually lasts until the child is between the ages of 2 and 4. For many children, this behavior resolves naturally and on its own – without any need for parental intervention. So avoid trying to get them to quit until the after the child’s 5th birthday. You’ll avoid your tears – and theirs!

Reasons for Concern

So if thumb-sucking is natural... Why worry? There are a few legitimate reasons why you’ll want to put an end to that little addiction. Some of the issues related to thumb-sucking include:

  • Dental Problems. Thumb-sucking after age 5 – and especially aggressive thumb-sucking – can cause of variety of oral issues for developing children. Children can develop an overbite or teeth that protrude outwards, particularly if thumb-sucking continues after adult teeth begin to come in. There’s even the chance that a child can develop a speech impediment, which can lead to issues of its own.
  • Minor Physical Issues. Continued thumb-sucking can lead to other minor physical issues like extremely dry and calloused thumbs, and nail infections.
  • Social Stigma. Most parents’ greatest worry however, center around the social stigma of thumb-sucking. School-aged kids can be teased mercilessly, and other kids might not want to play with or even sit next to a thumb-sucker. This social rejection can be hurtful – and can sometimes make the problem worse.

How to Break the Habit

First off, observe your child and talk to them about the issue. The important thing is to figure out why they suck their thumbs, and the reasons behind the behavior will help you handle the situation. Here are some underlying motivations:

  • Attention Seeking. If your child is sucking their thumb to get attention, often it’s just best to ignore the it. Once your child realizes you’re not giving a big reaction, they’ll often stop on their own.
  • Unconscious Habit. If your child sucks his thumb unconsciously (i.e., he does it out of habit without being aware of it), then gentle but consistent reminders can help modify the behavior.
  • Trying to Quit. If your child appears to want to quit but can’t quite seem to stop, sit down together and make up a rewards chart, doling out stars on the days where they go thumb-free and letting them choose to have a few slip-ups each week. Give them rewards for a job well done – as well as lavish praise. A visit to the dentist might also be in order. The dentist show how thumb-sucking will affect their teeth. They can also supply dental devices such as a palatal bar or a crib, which can make the thumb-sucking more difficult.
  • Stress Relief. For children who suck their thumbs when they’re upset or in a new or different situation, try to reduce their exposure to triggers – but in the meantime also teach them other ways to cope with their stress. Stress management is a skill that kids will need for the rest of their lives – and it is never too early to start learning!

Unsuccessful or Controversial Strategies

There are some strategies which either don’t seem to work or are controversial. Punishing your child for the thumb-sucking or being critical of the behavior can sometimes reinforce rather than end it – and can put a strain on the parent-child relationship. So consider going the reward route instead!

Do you have a thumb-sucker in the family? What have you tried to break the habit?

Tags : health   development   

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