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Sunday, November 15, 2009

How to get children to stop sucking their thumbs

When my daughter, Lindsey, was a baby, she sucked her thumb almost from birth, possibly even before birth. She wanted nothing to do with pacifiers and would spit them out in favor of her thumb.

When she got older, though, she became embarrassed about her thumb sucking, so, except during nap time, she stopped sucking her thumb during the day.

She continued to suck her thumb at night, though – until she decided she was old enough to completely stop.

As a caring mother, I acknowledged the difficult choice she was making, admitting that habits were hard to break, so I offered to help her with the process by holding her thumbs as she fell asleep.

Kidding. I purchased ointments, but the taste never really bothered her much and my creative little thumb sucker was quick to teach herself how to suck her other thumb.

Ointments were our only option in the 80's – well, that and wearing gloves she knew how to remove. Short of removing the thumbs, parents were at a loss about how to prevent thumb sucking until the child decided on her own to quit her habit. Parents could encourage their children to quit their habits, but could not force them to quit.

Today, encouragement comes in the form of numerous treatment plans – plastic thumb-only gloves and other devices that are supposed to prevent children from getting their thumbs in or too close to their mouths.

But again, what's to stop them from removing those items if they really want to suck their thumbs? All it takes is a little finesse in pulling off plastic and ripping Velcro. And take it from me, those little "child proof" containers are easily manipulated by children who are adept at figuring out how things work.

None of those "remedies" would have worked with Lindsey anyway. She had to decide on her own to quit sucking her thumb.

And that's exactly how it happened. One day, when she was around 4 years old, she came up with a plan. I watched her run to the toy box and empty its contents – one item at a time as she scanned each item and put it down.

"What are you doing?" I asked her.

She was looking for something that looked like a thumb, she told me. I had to smile – she was showing that creative spirit I had grown to love.

She found a long cylindrical block to bring to bed with her. Though she tried, she couldn't find a comfortable way to suck it, so she tossed the block aside and continued sucking her thumb.

Then one day, when she was in grammar school, a girl she really liked asked her to spend the night. "What am I going to do?" She cried. She lamented about not going at all, but decided she really wanted to spend the night at the little girl's house.

So Lindsey decided, hard as it was, to confess to her friend that she sucked her thumb. It was a wise choice. She was so relieved to hear her friend say, "That's OK. I wet the bed."

And a great friendship was formed, built on trust.

Thumb sucking, while it is an embarrassing habit, hurts no one but the thumb sucker, because it shifts their teeth. I think it gives people character, but in all honesty if Lindsey's front teeth had jutted out at an unreasonable angle, I would have gotten her braces.

When I was discussing Lindsey's turmoil over her thumb sucking habit with a woman who was in her 30s, the woman confessed to me that she still sucked her thumb! Wow! I wasn't expecting that. Some habits are just too difficult for some people to break and she found a loving husband who accepted her for herself, habits and all.

Fortunately Lindsey stopped sucking her thumb long before she entered her teens and can now call herself a "former" thumb sucker. But it had to be HER choice, and I think that's how children learn how to stop sucking their thumbs. Parents can help to empower their children, but ultimately the decision and follow through of breaking a difficult habit is up to the child. Learning how to break their own habits teaches them how to strengthen their resolve and make healthy choices.

Until they become teenagers, but that's another blog.


  1. Makes you wonder -- what is it about the "thumb" that makes it more attractive to the child than the other digits? Maybe Lindsey could tell us!

  2. Your point is spot on about the thumbsucker making the decision.

    I am a former thumb sucker and now my daughter (4 years old) is.

    My parents tried the old fashion way with gloves, tying of the hands, ointments under the nails, etc. Nothing worked, I was extremely determined and found a way to remove any and all obstacles. I didn't stop until the day they removed my braces at the age of 13. My orthodontist said, "this is it, if you don't stop, your teeth will go right back to where they were." (Picture a half moon shape on my upper jaw!) Somehow that worked for me, that day I kicked the habit cold turkey.

    Now with my daughter, I've been explaining to her how thumbsucking shifts your teeth. I let her know in language that a 4 year old can digest the she'd need braces to correct her crooked teeth. Amazingly this has appealed to her vanity. She says, "Mommy I don't want crooked teeth." I can see her taking the time to think about whether she will suck her thumb. I've caught her stopping herself. I gently remind her that she wants straight teeth, and it helps keep her on track. I never place any pressure on her and I'm finding she's making the decision based on the information I'm giving her.

    I'm pleasantly surprised. I'm sure this may not work for everyone. Thumbsucking is an incredibly comforting action for those who do it.

  3. My daughter was a thumb sucker, but not a bad one according to the dentist. He told me not to push it or it she would cling to the thumb more. So, I decided to just occasionally comment that when she went to pre-K she needed to stop sucking her thumb because she would be too big for it. When she turned 4 she wanted to stop, but had trouble. We gave her jello at night if she made it all day without her thumb. Then after we mastered the daytime, we tried nightime. It was tough for her, but what we had to do was change the bedtime routine for a while, and she fell asleep with her hand next to cheek. For about 2 weeks it took her a long time to fall asleep, and she would call us to tuck her in again, etc. Even though she is an active kid, we increased her activity level even more for a few days, too. After the 2 weeks everything worked its way out and she had no problems falling asleep. She just stopped ~3 days before pre-K started and was very proud of herself. :-)

  4. I am nine and i still suck on my fingers. I even suck on my fingers when I am around my friends and they don't mind. I usuly suck on my middle fingers. I don't mind saying it to people. I have shifted,not from sucking my fingers though. They are just like that normaly. Now I know my grandma Teresa and my aunt Lindsey. But I don't mind that my aunt sucks her thumb sometimes. I suck my fingers when I am worried or sad or mad. I always do it when im alone. My mom or dad never tell me to stop. O.K maby my dad does sometimes. I stoped when I was 4 and now I suck my fingers.


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