Thumbsucking

Annette posted: “I have a 4 year old who is still sucking her thumb. At what age do I start discouraging thumbsucking and what is the best way to do it?”

Thumbsucking and other oral habits can hard to break. Many adults find it very difficult to stop biting their nails, so it’s not surprising that in young children this is such a persistent habit.

At age four, your child is probably perfectly happy to continue sucking her thumb. She doesn’t see anything wrong with it. So methods to stop thumbsucking at this age are often doomed to failure. You can try to set a rule, but she’ll break it as soon as your back is turned—often unintentionally, out of habit. But until she really wants to stop sucking, there’s just about nothing you can do that’s going to be effective.

Starting at about 5 or 6, many kids are ready to accept the idea that thumbsucking isn’t good, and that they ought to stop. You can have the “germ talk” with them about the germs on their hands that make them sick, and they’ll also notice by then that the other kids on the playground don’t suck their thumbs. Someone (hopefully not a parent) is likely to call them a baby if they keep sucking. So it’s a time that can be ripe for some gentle reminders. What you’re trying to convey is “I know you want to stop, but I also know it’s hard to remember. Let’s come up with some ways to help you remember you want to quit.”

Some reminders include:

  • A positive-reinforcement chart (earn a sticker for every day with no thumbsucking—three stickers ears a trip for ice cream!)
  • A thumb-covering glove. An example of this is at http://stopthumbsucking.net/, or you can probably make one yourself. Something similar could be made for finger-suckers. It won’t stop a thumb from going in the mouth, but it will remind the child that she doesn’t want to put it there.
  • Nasty-tasting stuff you put on the thumb. I’m not really a big fan of this—it seems too much like a punishment, it might increase anxiety and therefore thumbsucking. But it has worked for some people.

I also don’t like the dental “rake” appliance that sometimes is installed in a child’s mouth to poke a sucked thumb. Ouch.

I urge parents to keep thumbsucking in perspective. The child isn’t smoking or drinking, and though it’s not great for their teeth I’m not really convinced it’s a terrible thing for a preschooler to do. Once your child is 5 or 6, you can try to take a more active role in discouraging further thumbsucking, but your best chance of success will occur when then child decides she wants to quit.

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3 Comments on “Thumbsucking”

  1. KM Says:

    My 10 month old sucks her forefinger and middle finger to fall asleep. She has recently developed a blister on her middle finger, which I assume is from her top 2 teeth. Should I be concerned about the blister? Anything I should or shouldn’t do? I know I can’t keep her from sucking them so I am not sure how the blister will heal. Thanks.

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  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Aggressive suckers will get blisters and sores, and sometimes teethmarks. For what it’s worth, I’ve never seen any kind of serious infection or complication from this. I suggest you just leave it open to the air. If there’s visible pus or the area seems tender, or especially if signs like these are accompanied by fever, you should take her to the doctor for an evaluation.

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