thumb sucking child

Thumb sucking- how to get your child to stop

By Kate, 19th March 2019

Has your child discovered that sucking their thumb is even better than their favourite stuffed bunny or blanket? Or perhaps they suck their thumb while falling asleep, while watching TV, or when they are scared or upset? Or maybe up until now it hasn’t been an issue, as they were only using it for a few minutes at a time to soothe their self, but now you’re thinking it’s time to try to cut this habit out.

While it’s perfectly reasonable to want your child to stop, it might be good to know that some of the perceived dangers of thumb sucking might not be based on fact. Here are some common myths around thumb sucking:

  1. My kid will still be sucking his thumb until he is 12!

Not likely. Statistics show that less than 9% of children who suck their thumbs still continue over the age of 5, with the vast majority breaking the habit between the ages of 2 and 4. And of those kids still sucking their thumbs at 5, most will stop as they start to identify with their peer groups and don’t want to be the only one in kindergarten with their thumb in their mouth at story time.

  1. It will ruin their teeth

This can be true, but only after the kids get their permanent teeth, which will start to happen between 6 and 8. In older kids, chronic thumb sucking can start to change the shape of the oral cavity. But luckily, the vast majority of kids will have stopped on their own by then anyway.

  1. He’s using it as a crutch

While it’s true that young children who discover their thumbs do use it for comfort, this doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to learn coping mechanisms for dealing with stress or self-soothing later in life.

  1. A dummy is better

Lots of parents tell me they would rather their child use a soother. But in my experience, lots of parents say this and then don’t actually take it away! If the soother is their child’s sleep prop, and they use it for comfort, then it becomes just as difficult to take away from the child. Lots of parents let soother-use linger on way longer than they planned to. I had one client who confessed that they still let their 5-year-old sleep with his soother because of this very reason.

So, with these common fears out of the way, there really is no right or wrong. Only a personal preference of the parent’s. Just like some mother’s use bottles and others breastfeed. Or some parents use time-outs and others don’t. There are many different ways of doing things. If you’ve decided that thumb sucking needs to go, there are some ways to help your child give it up for good.

These tips are designed for kids 3 years and up

The key to solving thumb sucking is getting to the heart of why your child sucks their thumb. Every child is different, and some might only use their thumb when they’re trying to sleep, others only when they’re upset, and others at every opportunity! In each case it has become a habit and as we all know, habits are hard to break.  One really effective tool is the reward system. Offering a benefit to NOT sucking their thumbs is sometimes all the encouragement kids need.

But first it’s important to find out why and when your child turns to their thumb.

Step 1.

For the first week, keep a pen and paper handy, and write down every single time you see your child’s thumb in their mouth.At the end of the week, go through your list, and see if there are any consistencies. Do they always suck their thumb around 4 p.m. while watching their favourite show? Does he suck his thumb around the other toddlers at the playgroup because he’s nervous or shy?

Step 2.

Identify what the payoff is for your child. For example, if you notice that every time they hurt their self they stick their thumb in, then a conclusion would be that their thumb helps their deal with pain.If you notice that the thumb goes in whenever they are watching TV, then the thumb is being used when they are idle.

Step 3.

Remind and distract. Now that you know what they are using it for, you can offer their something in exchange for the thumb. For example, if they are about to watch their favourite show, offer them a bowl of grapes to eat while the show is on. If he sucks his thumb when he gets hurt and he just tripped on the stairs, you can rush over and offer him a long hug. Then follow it up by a quick distraction like a game or favourite toy.

Step 4

A reward chart for a day completed with no sucking can be helpful. You can offer your child a treat or small toy at the end of the day if they are successful. I also find that the more immediate the reward, the better the outcome. If your child is old enough, suggest that they come tell you whenever they feel like sucking their thumb. You can then offer up a reward. It doesn’t have to be a big treat, just one M&M or gummy bear for each time they resist the urge.

Nighttime thumb suckers

Bedtime tends to be a very popular time for thumb sucking.  You will need to find some other alternative that can be just as comforting. Tying trying a light pair of gloves can work. When your child brings his thumb to his mouth they realise immediately. You can also buy your child a new sleep toy. They can rub their thumb against instead of sucking it.

Remember that bad habits are hard to break

It can take time and encouragement. I don’t find that punishment or nagging work well when trying to discourage a habit. Children are notorious for power struggles, and you don’t want to turn it into a battle of wills.

If the child is old enough, you can tell him about a habit you tried hard to break (like drinking coffee). Make it clear why you’d like him to stop this behaviour. If you can think of a way to make it about him rather than you, you’ll have better success. If you’re worried about his teeth, you could say how great it would be if he had the best smile the camera.  This will help internalise the process.

Once your child sees that there are other things they can do to self-soothe, and has been reminded enough times to take their thumb out of their mouth. Then they’ll stop sucking their thumb before you know it! They just need to get into a new routine. 

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