Written by Lavinia
Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant
26 April 2021

Giving up the Thumb

Solving thumb sucking in a few easy steps!

It’s happened. Your child has discovered that sucking her thumb is even better than her favourite stuffed cat and Winnie the Pooh blanket when it comes to comfort. He sucks his thumb while falling asleep, while watching TV, when he’s scared, when he’s upset. And maybe up until now it hasn’t been an issue, as she was only using it for a few minutes at a time to soothe herself, 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 misconceptions:

The myths

1. My kid will still be sucking his thumb when he’s 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 storytime.

2. It will ruin her 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.

3. 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.

4. A pacifier is better

Lots of parents tell me they would rather their child use a soother, because at least they can take the soother away. 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 she still let her 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 mothers 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, here are some ways to help your child give it up for good.

TIPSThese 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 her 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 her 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 her mouth. At the end of the week, go through your list, and see if there are any consistencies. Does she always suck her thumb around 4 p.m. while watching her 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 she hurts herself she sticks her thumb in, then a conclusion would be that her thumb helps her deal with pain. If you notice that the thumb goes in whenever she’s watching TV, then the thumb is being used when she’s idle.

Step 3. Remind and distract: Now that you know what he’s using it for, you can offer him something in exchange for the thumb. For example, if she’s about to watch her favourite show, offer her 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 followed 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 she’s successful. I also find that the more immediate the reward, the better the outcome. If your child is old enough, suggest that she come tell you whenever she feels like sucking her thumb and doesn’t, so you can offer up a reward. It doesn’t have to be a big treat, just one M&M or gummy bear for each time she resists the urge.

Nighttime thumb suckers:Bedtime tends to be a very popular time for thumb sucking, so you will need to find some other alternative that can be just as comforting. Tying a ribbon around the thumb, or a light pair of gloves can work as a reminder so when your child brings his thumb to his mouth he gets an instant reminder about what the goals are. You can also buy your child a new sleep toy that has texture that she can rub her thumb against instead of sucking it.

Remember that bad habits are hard to break and it takes 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 sit her down and tell her about a habit you tried hard to break (drinking coffee or nail biting, for instance) and make it clear why you would like her to stop this behavior. If you can think of a way to make it about him rather than you, you’ll have better success. So for example, if you’re worried about his teeth, you could say how great it would be if he had the best smile at soccer pictures next week. This will help internalize the process.

Once your child sees that there are other things she can do to self-soothe, and has been reminded enough times to take her thumb out of her mouth, she’ll stop sucking her thumb before you know it!

Article written by Lavinia
Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant
Based in Singapore
Trained in the Sleep Sense Program

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