Slowing down that thumb-sucking

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 6, 2012 06:00 AM

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Hello Ms. Meltz,

I love your column, and really respect your balanced advice. I'm writing to you now with a question that is probably not worth a whole column, but I'm hoping you can point me toward some resources: what are some good techniques to stop thumb-sucking?

My 30-month old daughter sucks her thumb frequently, and it doesn't bother me or my husband. However, our dentist recently told us that she's starting to see some physiologic changes (her pallet is rising) and that it's important to stop this behavior.

She does have a "lovey" and self-soothes by holding it while sucking her thumb at quiet moments during the day, and while falling asleep. I don't anticipate breaking the habit will be easy, and as a former thumb-sucker (until age 4 or 5), I sympathize with my daughter. How can we make this as painless as possible, for everyone?

Thank you so much,
From: Valerie, Dorchester, MA


Thanks, Valerie!

I have a question back at you, is this a pediatric dentist? I know there can be problems from thumb-sucking, but the American Dental Association, for instance, makes a distinction between what it calls "vigorous" and "passive" thumb-sucking. It's also typically a more serious issue once permanent teeth come in, and she's not there yet. I also know first-hand that some dentists are quick to jump on the "no thumb sucking" bandwagon than others. So: consider your source.

Also -- if you can't tell already -- I'm a glass is half-full person when it comes to thumb-sucking; I see every child who sucks his thumb as totally brilliant for discovering a free stress-reducer right at the end of his hand. I also am a person who believes it allowing children to outgrow the need for the thumb all by themselves. This typically comes in stages: most kids learn by preschool from their peers that thumb sucking is a "baby" behavior and they stop doing it in public.

That's an adaptive behavior that any parent can encourage and I think that's the way for you to go, especially since you're halfway there with her sucking only to self-sooth or to fall asleep. Think of it more as "slowing down" the thumb-sucking, not stopping it. Cold-turkey can happen but usually in older children.

The trick for you is to reduce the place where she sucks. Talk about it as something you only do "at home," and then only "in bed."

Does she suck in the car? Ask her if she can try to just hold her lovey and pile on the praise when she does. Stay away from threatening or punishing. She's a little young for star charts, but you can try: For every time she doesn't suck her thumb in the car, she gets a star and eventually stars earn a reward of doing something fun together. From the car, you can move to not sucking while watching a DVD.

I would stay away from products that make the thumb distasteful, unless there is an urgency to the medical issue. (Again: get a second opinion!) Meanwhile, I hope we get comments from parents on what's worked (or hasn't).

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7 comments so far...
  1. We are almost done transitioning my daughter off of the thumb. I think there are a few key things that worked for us. First, we did exactly what Barbara suggests and started by designating some "not a thumb" places. We started with places like restaurants or a store. When we reminded her, we could tell her "Not a thumb place, but you can do it when we get back in the car." Gradually it just expanded to where there were very few thumb places left. We made fun rhymes about it, if she did it while waiting at the dinner table we would say "table is not able!" or "pot is not!" if she did it on the potty. It made her laugh and made it not feel like a reprimand.

    Second, we engaged her in the process. We talked about what she did and did not like about sucking her thumb, then we told her that if she wanted to stop we could find ways to help her. When she told us she was ready to stop, we used a thumb guard for about two weeks, and that helped a lot with the unconscious habit part of it. We do gentle reminders when she does it, and praise when she doesn't do it in "trigger" places like the car. Now she only does it at bedtime, which is what we agreed on together.

    I understand how frustrating it can be when they suck their thumb all the time - my daughter did it constantly! But you might want to wait six months or so before you start helping her stop. Having her a willing participant in stopping makes it much easier and more successful, and being a little older may help her find other ways to self-soothe.

    Posted by Guest July 6, 12 12:24 PM
  1. My sister sucked her thumb on the womb (we have the ultrasound pic to prove it) and didn't completely stop until she was 6-7. Her palette was pushed up to a pointy cone shape. She had 2 rounds of braces, including headgear, separtors, pulled teeth, etc. Now she has a beautiful smile, but it cost our parents a fortune. Just one story for your consideration.

    Posted by Big Sis When She Was Little July 6, 12 02:45 PM
  1. I agree...the thumb polishes are terrible and have chemicals in them...there is a fun product that kids really like to help to stop thumb sucking called Thumbuddy To Love...it teaches them they whys and hows to stop thumb sucking with a fun thumb puppet, book and success chart. Google Thumbuddy To Love

    Posted by Andrea July 7, 12 11:17 AM
  1. My five year old daughter has been a thumb sucker literally since birth. She came out and began to suck her thumb. Having been a finger sucker myself until about age five the habit never really bothered me.

    This year she started kindergarten and I did tell her that kids at school may start to say things to her if she sucked her thumb at school. I also let her know that she could pick up a lot of germs at school if she kept putting her thumb in her mouth. I told her I knew when she was a big girI she would give up the habit on her own and then I let it be. I didn't talk to her constantly about it or harass her about it. Thumb sucking for my daughter has greatly decreased this past school year. She primarily does it now if she is tired at home or in her bed at night.

    Interestingly enough thumb sucking can also be a barometer of how a child is feeling about things. This past September my child's first kindergarten teacher this year told me my daughter was continually sucking her thumb and was being "defiant" by not taking it out of her mouth when asked. I knew it was my daughter's way of soothing herself in a classroom where she felt very uncomfortable. It was the first clue that something was up in my daughter's classroom and I ended up having her switch teachers after other events surfaced.

    Posted by Nicole Luongo July 7, 12 10:40 PM
  1. I sucked my thumb until I was at least 10, but as I got older it was only in bed to fall asleep. I still remember how comforting it was! I dropped it myself when I decided I was "too old". I never needed braces and have nice teeth, so I guess it just depends.

    Posted by suburban mama July 11, 12 10:42 PM
  1. I work as a speech pathologist and have noticed not only are thumb suckers prone to dental problems, they are also prone to articulation difficulties because of the structural changes they are producing when they suck their thumbs. Sucking increases the in and out movement of the tongue but decreases the up and down movements. Unfortunetly, most sounds are produced by tongue elevation (d,j, l, n, s. t, sh, ch, r etc.) There is a good book out by Pamela Marshalla intitiled "How to Stop Thumb Sucking" that may help. Decreasing the use of a sippy cup is recommended by the age of 18 months for the same reason. I know decreasing something so soothing is difficult to do. But, it the long run it could save you money, etc.

    Posted by mary borsari July 13, 12 05:03 PM
  1. I did this as a child - i also had a "blankie" that i held while I sucked my thumb --- i never sucked my thumb without it... My parents just took it away from me one day and it was over, cold turkey. Apparently it was a rough few days, but then I got over it pretty fast & didn't suck my thumb - i think I was around 4 or so? I had terrible teeth & lots of issues with braces, etc - not sure if the thumb-sucking contributed, but it was also probably just bad teeth genes.

    Posted by ADM July 18, 12 05:20 PM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. We are almost done transitioning my daughter off of the thumb. I think there are a few key things that worked for us. First, we did exactly what Barbara suggests and started by designating some "not a thumb" places. We started with places like restaurants or a store. When we reminded her, we could tell her "Not a thumb place, but you can do it when we get back in the car." Gradually it just expanded to where there were very few thumb places left. We made fun rhymes about it, if she did it while waiting at the dinner table we would say "table is not able!" or "pot is not!" if she did it on the potty. It made her laugh and made it not feel like a reprimand.

    Second, we engaged her in the process. We talked about what she did and did not like about sucking her thumb, then we told her that if she wanted to stop we could find ways to help her. When she told us she was ready to stop, we used a thumb guard for about two weeks, and that helped a lot with the unconscious habit part of it. We do gentle reminders when she does it, and praise when she doesn't do it in "trigger" places like the car. Now she only does it at bedtime, which is what we agreed on together.

    I understand how frustrating it can be when they suck their thumb all the time - my daughter did it constantly! But you might want to wait six months or so before you start helping her stop. Having her a willing participant in stopping makes it much easier and more successful, and being a little older may help her find other ways to self-soothe.

    Posted by Guest July 6, 12 12:24 PM
  1. My sister sucked her thumb on the womb (we have the ultrasound pic to prove it) and didn't completely stop until she was 6-7. Her palette was pushed up to a pointy cone shape. She had 2 rounds of braces, including headgear, separtors, pulled teeth, etc. Now she has a beautiful smile, but it cost our parents a fortune. Just one story for your consideration.

    Posted by Big Sis When She Was Little July 6, 12 02:45 PM
  1. I agree...the thumb polishes are terrible and have chemicals in them...there is a fun product that kids really like to help to stop thumb sucking called Thumbuddy To Love...it teaches them they whys and hows to stop thumb sucking with a fun thumb puppet, book and success chart. Google Thumbuddy To Love

    Posted by Andrea July 7, 12 11:17 AM
  1. My five year old daughter has been a thumb sucker literally since birth. She came out and began to suck her thumb. Having been a finger sucker myself until about age five the habit never really bothered me.

    This year she started kindergarten and I did tell her that kids at school may start to say things to her if she sucked her thumb at school. I also let her know that she could pick up a lot of germs at school if she kept putting her thumb in her mouth. I told her I knew when she was a big girI she would give up the habit on her own and then I let it be. I didn't talk to her constantly about it or harass her about it. Thumb sucking for my daughter has greatly decreased this past school year. She primarily does it now if she is tired at home or in her bed at night.

    Interestingly enough thumb sucking can also be a barometer of how a child is feeling about things. This past September my child's first kindergarten teacher this year told me my daughter was continually sucking her thumb and was being "defiant" by not taking it out of her mouth when asked. I knew it was my daughter's way of soothing herself in a classroom where she felt very uncomfortable. It was the first clue that something was up in my daughter's classroom and I ended up having her switch teachers after other events surfaced.

    Posted by Nicole Luongo July 7, 12 10:40 PM
  1. I sucked my thumb until I was at least 10, but as I got older it was only in bed to fall asleep. I still remember how comforting it was! I dropped it myself when I decided I was "too old". I never needed braces and have nice teeth, so I guess it just depends.

    Posted by suburban mama July 11, 12 10:42 PM
  1. I work as a speech pathologist and have noticed not only are thumb suckers prone to dental problems, they are also prone to articulation difficulties because of the structural changes they are producing when they suck their thumbs. Sucking increases the in and out movement of the tongue but decreases the up and down movements. Unfortunetly, most sounds are produced by tongue elevation (d,j, l, n, s. t, sh, ch, r etc.) There is a good book out by Pamela Marshalla intitiled "How to Stop Thumb Sucking" that may help. Decreasing the use of a sippy cup is recommended by the age of 18 months for the same reason. I know decreasing something so soothing is difficult to do. But, it the long run it could save you money, etc.

    Posted by mary borsari July 13, 12 05:03 PM
  1. I did this as a child - i also had a "blankie" that i held while I sucked my thumb --- i never sucked my thumb without it... My parents just took it away from me one day and it was over, cold turkey. Apparently it was a rough few days, but then I got over it pretty fast & didn't suck my thumb - i think I was around 4 or so? I had terrible teeth & lots of issues with braces, etc - not sure if the thumb-sucking contributed, but it was also probably just bad teeth genes.

    Posted by ADM July 18, 12 05:20 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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