Thumb Sucking: Tips for Helping Children Break the Habit

For many parents, breaking a child’s habit of thumb sucking can be a major challenge, and for good reason. Thumb sucking is one of the first purposeful activities for most babies.

Even unborn babies engage in this instinctual behavior inside the womb. Babies and toddlers derive comfort from sucking their thumbs, and may fall asleep more easily as a result. Thumb sucking behaviors are regarded by many child psychologists as efforts to exert control over the child’s environment, and the habit may even be considered a positive step forward in an infant’s development.

When to Intervene

For some children, however, thumb sucking may become compulsive, intense or continual. In these cases, parents may wish to intervene to prevent dental damage that can sometimes result from the constant pressure against developing teeth and gums. Children who suck their thumbs in public settings may also experience social discomfort or teasing from their peers about the habit. If thumb sucking has become a continual habit, persists beyond age four or five or is applying significant pressure on teeth, gums and thumb, it may be time to help your child break the habit for good.

Appeal to Vanity

Most children can be significantly influenced by appeals to their “big kid” pride. However, this can be a delicate subject with some children, especially if parents have made efforts to try to curb thumb sucking in the past. The comfort and emotional security provided by thumb sucking should not be underestimated. Some children may use the act of thumb sucking to help soothe fears and worries, or to manage stress in unfamiliar situations. In these cases, appeals to the child’s vanity may not have the desired results.

Distract Idle Hands

By giving children interesting and engaging activities to keep their hands busy, many will refrain from thumb sucking, and may forget to practice this habit even after the alternate activity is completed. This is especially true for activities that are messy like finger painting, playing with modeling clay or building castles in the sandbox. Children are far less likely to put dirty thumbs into their mouths. This prolonged break from thumb sucking can help break the child’s dependence on the habit by providing alternative ways to affect and alter the environment.

Peer Pressure

Other children, especially those in safe preschool or playgroup environments, may be the best allies of parents in eliminating thumb sucking behaviors. Children tend to emulate the other children around them, and may avoid behaviors that can be seen as less than acceptable or as babyish. While some children will still regress into thumb sucking at night or when they are tired, avoiding this activity in the presence of other children is an important step toward breaking the habit altogether.

Enlist Help

Parents may wish to ask the child’s pediatrician and dentist to discuss thumb sucking during a regular visit. These medical professionals may be perceived as authority figures by the child, who may attach increased importance to their words as a result. Parents of preschool students can sometimes get similar results by asking the preschool teacher to have a word with the child as well. Children typically want to please the adults in their lives, so these respected and admired adults may be able to lend their support in helping the child break this particular habit.

Don’t Pacify

Substituting a pacifier for the thumb is generally not recommended. Pacifiers create the same kinds of dental problems as thumb sucking, and are even less socially acceptable for older children.

Most children stop sucking their thumbs by the age of four or five, so the majority of parents need not worry about major dental problems resulting from thumb sucking. By remaining positive throughout the process, however, many parents can help their children overcome this habit whether it is a social issue, or the potential cause of a future orthodontic problem.

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