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Tips For Curbing The Thumb-Sucking Habit

Many babies and young children suck their thumbs, it’s a reflex that begins even in the womb. Thankfully, most children eventually outgrow the habit - but for some, it lingers, and it can cause problems over time.
  • Published on: 09 Apr 2021
  • 5 min read
Tips For Curbing The Thumb-Sucking Habit

Many babies and young children suck their thumbs. After all, it’s a reflex that begins even in the womb. The urge to suck on a thumb stems from a baby’s instinctual drive to root and suck, mechanisms that help them breastfeed successfully. However, this same protective biological instinct can also cause parents a headache when baby begins to rely on other forms of comfort sucking, such as using a pacifier or sucking on a thumb (or other finger). The sucking motion can give an infant a sense of security and calm. Thankfully, most children eventually outgrow the habit - but for some, it lingers, and it can cause problems over time. 

hiding boy

Unless a pediatrician expresses concern, there truly is no reason for parents to fret about their child’s thumb sucking (or pacifier dependency) unless the habit continues past age 3 or 4. The biggest problem extended thumb-sucking causes is that it changes the way the child’s permanent adult teeth come in. According to the American Academy Of Pediatrics, sucking on a pacifier or finger past ages 2-4 may affect the shape of the child’s mouth or the way the teeth line up. Curbing the sucking habit before the adult teeth come in gives your child a chance for his bite to naturally correct itself. 

Although pacifiers are trendy, cute, and are a great way for infants to self-soothe, many babies turn to thumb sucking because of the convenience. Pacifiers can be taken away; fingers cannot. And breaking this habit of thumb-sucking can be much harder than simply taking away a pacifier, because their fingers are always within reach. Even so, there are several ways parents can encourage their child to give up thumb sucking without causing an emotional disturbance to their child. 

thumb sucking toddler

Here are some productive ways to get your little one to stop thumb-sucking: 

1. Just ignore it. 

If your child is still very young (1-2 years old), one of the best things you can do is simply ignore the thumb sucking. Sometimes giving too much attention to an unwanted behavior just encourages the child to engage in it even more as a way of getting attention. Infants and toddlers often have a hard time grasping why a behavior is bad, and ignoring bad behavior and providing a distraction can be a good tactic to use. 

2. Have a conversation. 

By the time a child is old enough to have thumb sucking become a harmful habit, they are also old enough to understand the concept of “why.” Have a heartfelt conversation with your child about why thumb sucking is a bad habit, without teasing them or making them feel like a baby. Give them the honest reasoning - that thumb sucking (or using a pacifier) hinders the way their adult teeth come in, and might require extensive dental work someday to fix it. In the same way that you teach your child healthy dental hygiene by brushing teeth daily, encourage your child to protect their developing mouth by stopping thumb sucking. Take time to come up with a method together to help break the habit. From rewards charts to wrapping a bandage around their thumb, there are many simple ways to remind your child to ditch the bad habit. 

3. Find an alternative. 

There are several alternatives that your child can use as a soothing mechanism, without risking damaging their developing mouth. Some children might enjoy using a stress ball, playing with clay or playdough, using a fidget spinner or other fidget device, or chewing on a teething/sensory necklace. If the thumb sucking occurs at night as a way to calm down before falling asleep, you can try buying your little one a special new blanket or stuffed animal to use as a security item instead. 

toddler

4. Identify your child’s sensitive times. 

Sometimes thumb sucking occurs at specific times when your child is triggered. This behavior could be triggered by anxiety, sleepiness, boredom, shyness, or stress. If you can identify what your child’s triggers are, it will be easier to come up with a positive solution to the problem. Try not to attempt to break this habit while you’re in the middle of a stressful time, such as starting preschool or kindergarten, moving into a new house, adjusting to a new baby, or dealing with family health issues or death. Give your child some time to adjust to these situations, and then work on the thumb sucking habit when your child is ready. 

thumb sucking

5. Give lots of positive reinforcement. 

Even adults struggle with breaking bad habits - so give your child some grace as you navigate this difficult road together! Give your child plenty of positive reinforcement as you attempt to stop the thumb sucking. You can verbally praise your child, use a rewards chart of your choosing, or promise your child some kind of special treat or outing once they learn to stop sucking their thumb for good. You may also want to reinforce behaviors that you do want to see as alternatives to thumb sucking, such as fidgeting with a small toy or holding a security blanket. Your child will eventually gain the confidence to be proud of her accomplishment! 

Thumb sucking is a difficult habit to break, because a child’s hands are always accessible. If your child sucks their thumb, remember that all bad habits take time to break, and in the meantime you can work with your child on identifying triggers and coming up with positive alternatives that won’t harm his developing teeth. 

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Parenting is awesome. Sleep is overrated. Every day is an adventure. 


Meet Our KeaMommy Contributor: Kaitlyn Torrez

I’m Kaitlyn Torrez, from the San Francisco Bay Area. I live with my husband and two children, Roman and Logan. I’m a former preschool teacher, currently enjoying being a stay at home mom. I love all things writing, coffee, and chocolate. In my free time, I enjoy reading, blogging, and working out.

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