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How To Break The Thumb Sucking Habit

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

I received an email via our iPhone App (do you have it?) from a mom who is trying to break her son’s thumb sucking habit.  She writes “I’ve been trying to get him to stop for weeks and I’m failing, HELP!”

Thumb sucking is an innate reflex and can even been seen on sonograms while a baby is still in utero. It is a common means of self-soothing for infants and young children. Most children will spontaneously stop thumb sucking by two to four years of age. But, like any habit, there are those for whom it is harder to stop.

In most cases children four and older only suck their thumb (or fingers) when they are tired, bored or anxious.  Very rarely do they suck their thumbs when they are engaged in activities like school, playing on the playground, or on the computer. They are often quite aware of the habit and will not suck in front of their friends, or teachers, but when relaxed at home their thumb goes straight to the mouth.

If your child is still sucking their thumb after the age of four, it may be time to sit down with them to discuss strategies to stop their thumb sucking.

Talk about germs (especially during cold and flu season) and come up with some sort of system to remind them when they are sucking and also to reward them for not sucking their thumb. Make fun sticker charts, and have a goal for number of days without sucking when the reward becomes even bigger.

You know what motivates your child the most, a new book, or toy or trip to get ice cream. Do not punish your child for sucking and praise them for all of their hard work. Habits are hard to break!

Many times thumb sucking may be curtailed by applying one of the over-the-counter products (Mavala Stop, or Orally No Bite), which are harmless liquids that taste badly. Unfortunately, many kids will get used to the unpleasant taste and continue to suck. Same goes for nail biters (I have not been successful in my own home in this area).

Many children will stop their daytime sucking but continue the nighttime habit. In this case you may also try using a glove or a thumb sucking apparatus that covers the thumb and even attaches to their pajama top to keep their thumb out of their mouths. Again, you need to have a motivated child to do this or it will not work.

Lastly, discuss this subject with your pediatric dentist. Sometimes, just having them discuss thumb sucking with your child will be enough to get a child to stop the habit. Power of positive thinking!

One final note:  There are expensive orthodontic appliances that may be used for older children that continue to have thumb sucking problems after their permanent teeth are erupting. Persistent sucking can lead to problems with a child’s bite and jaw formation and should be addressed by the dentist and or orthodontist.

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question or comment to Dr. Sue right now!

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