How to Stop Thumbsucking
How to Stop Thumbsucking
Three Methods:Stopping a Young Child’s Thumbsucking
Reducing Thumbsucking with Older Children
Stopping Your Own Thumbsucking as a Teen or Adult
Babies have a natural reflex to suck, yet some children (and adults) find thumbsucking a difficult habit to break.
Why it happens?
Toddlers suck their thumbs because it’s comforting and calming. Your toddler probably practiced this habit while he was still in the womb and perfected it as an infant.
Now he may turn to his thumb when he’s tired, scared, bored, sick, or trying to adjust to challenges such as starting child care. He may also use his thumb to help him fall asleep at bedtime and to lull himself back to sleep when he wakes up in the middle of the night.
If you’re stopping your child’s habit, speak softly and gently when addressing thumbsucking, and never
consider implementing a reward system to motivate your child. If you’re an adult, consider treating the cause of your thumb sucking, which might be stress, boredom, or anxiety. In any case, be patient and persistent if you want to see results.
Stopping a Young Child’s Thumbsucking
Assess whether the thumb-sucking is a problem. Thumb-sucking is a normal, natural behavior for many children, and is something they do to comfort themselves and alleviate anxiety. Most children will give it up before starting kindergarten. However, if you notice any of the following, it might be a problem:
- Dental problems: Thumb-sucking can sometimes affect a child’s bite by causing an overbite, the alignment of their teeth, or the way the roof of their mouth develops.
- Social problems: Children who suck their thumb may be teased, ostracized or bullied.
- Medical problems: Persistent thumbsucking can cause the skin on the thumb to shrivel, crack, or chap. It can prevent the nail from growing properly, or occasionally even a sore thumb caused by infections under and around the nail bed.
Watch for triggers. Many children suck their thumb only at certain times, like when they are falling asleep or riding in the car. Others do it for comfort when they’re hurt or upset. Learning your child’s triggers can offer clues as to the best method for helping them stop.
- For example, if your child sucks their thumb when they feel upset, you might gently remove the thumb from your child’s mouth, and offer a hug or some reassuring words to help them cope. Make sure to be non-threatening as you do this and make it a positive experience.
- For example, a toddler who’s hungry may suck his thumb, but an older child (age 3 or 4) might simply open the refrigerator and look for something to eat or ask his parents for a snack instead.
- If he tends to suck his thumb when he’s tired, try letting him nap longer. Or if he turns to it when he’s frustrated, help him put his feelings into words.
The key is to notice when and where sucking occurs and try to divert his attention by offering an alternative.
Provide an alternative soothing method. Children often thumb suck in order to self-soothe, especially older children. When you take away their means to feel calm, they may feel more stressed without having an outlet. Give your child another activity that encourages them to feel soothed.
- Do not use objects (such as blankets or stuffed animals outside of bedtime) as these can become lost or forgotten.
Let it go. Nagging or punishing your child won’t help because he doesn’t usually realize when he’s sucking away. Besides, pressuring him to stop may intensify his desire to do it even more. And methods such as putting an elastic bandage on his thumb will seem like unjust punishment, especially because he indulges in the habit for comfort and security. Give gentle reminders. Your child might not even be aware that they are sucking their thumb. If your child tends to suck their thumb absent-mindedly, give a gentle reminder. Speak calmly and gently to your child and try not to get upset or angry with them when they suck their thumb. Avoid scolding them or shaming them, especially in front of their siblings or other peers.
- You might have a special cue or hand sign to alert your child of their thumbsucking. This can be helpful if you do not wish to embarrass your child around other children.
Using rewards. Young children especially love rewards, so this is a great way to encourage target behaviors in your child. Setting up a simple reward system that tracks their progress and rewards them from abstaining from thumbsucking may help but makes your child addicted to the rewards. Adjust the target behaviors as necessary, such as thumbsucking 10 times per day, then lowering that number after a week. Also, make sure to explain to your child that thumbsucking is okay, it is just not something that older children do. This will help them to understand why they are being appreciated.
- For example, put a sticker on the calendar for every night your child sleeps through the night without sucking their thumb. At the end of a week with no thumbsucking, give your child a small appreciation in stead of a prize or an extra bedtime story.
Be consistent. When changing a child’s behavior, consistency is often key. If you start a aprreciating chart, make sure you check in every day and follow through on appreciations. If you give your child reminders, be as consistent as possible. The habit may take a while to subside.
- There may be times when you get frustrated at your child or it doesn’t seem like they’re making progress. Stick with it and encourage your child to succeed.
Reducing Thumbsucking with Older Children
Have a conversation about thumb sucking. Your child is likely old enough to discuss their thumbsucking and how to stop it. Sit down with your child and tell them that sucking their thumb may affect their teeth and that kids might make fun of them. Ask them how that makes them feel. Follow up by asking what they can do instead of sucking their thumb.
- Giving your child information and choices can help them feel in control instead of ashamed, embarrassed, or humiliated.
Help them deal with stress and anxiety. Older children may not know how to deal with feeling stressed, uneasy, or anxious and may turn to thumbsucking to self-soothe. Talk to your child about ways to feel calm and practice them together. Help them recognize when they start to feel stressed or anxious, then practice calming techniques, such as deep breathing.
- Have your child use their senses to feel calm. For example, have them take 3 deep breaths or close their eyes and imagine a forest.
- Label their stress as a monster so that they can learn to self-monitor. For example, say, “Looks like your anxiety bird is coming to visit. Let’s take 3 deep breaths so they go away.”
Cover the thumb. A covered thumb will not feel or taste the same as a bare thumb, and this is often enough to stop many children’s thumbsucking. Try a bandage, a finger cot, a small finger puppet, or a thumb guard. If thumbsucking occurs mainly at night, try putting a mitten or a sock over the hand.
- This can be a good introduction for your child to stop thumbsucking. However, you will likely need to wean them from the covering over time by only using it at bedtime or while traveling.
Arrange a chat with their dentist. Your child may benefit from having a dental professional talk to them. Seeing a doctor in a fancy coat might help your child to take them seriously and encourage them to stop sucking their thumb.
- If your older child is struggling to stop, ask your dentist to fit them with a mouth guard so that it will discourage thumbsucking and preserve your child’s teeth and bite.
Ignore attention-seeking behavior. Your child might suck their thumb for attention or to see how you react. They might enjoy watching you get angry or frustrated. If you think this might be the case, ignore the behavior completely. This will show your child that you’re not willing to engage on the behavior and it will likely stop on its own.
- If your child says, “Hey Dad, look!” and shows you they’re thumbsucking, stay composed and don’t react.
Stopping Your Own Thumbsucking as a Teen or Adult
Evaluate why you suck your thumb. Adults and teens suck their thumb for the same reason children do: it feels good and comforts them. For some, it’s just a bad habit; for others, it’s a mechanism for coping with stress. The more you understand why you suck your thumb, the better you can intervene with an effective method.
- Keep a journal. Every time you catch yourself sucking your thumb, write it down. Note what’s happening and what you are thinking or feeling at that moment.
- Pay attention when you’re in situations that lead to thumbsucking. Simply being aware of your habit can help you end it.
Use tools to deter yourself. If you don’t know where to begin, using simple methods to discourage thumbsucking can be a useful starting point. Wear a thumb ring that makes sucking difficult. Wearing a sock over your hand at night can help, especially if you thumb suck in your sleep or absent-mindedly.
- While these methods can help you learn to stop sucking your thumb, they may not be long-term solutions.
Soothe yourself in different ways. Whether thumbsucking is a bad habit or it’s something you use to soothe yourself, find ways to replace the thumbsucking. Your choice in replacement behaviors may differ depending on what causes you to thumbsuck. Especially if you suck your thumb to cope with stress or anxiety, it’s important to find another useful outlet that also soothes you.
- If you feel stressed or anxious, try taking some deep breaths to help your mind and body feel calm. Engage in a daily relaxation practice (like meditation or yoga) to help you cope with daily stressors.
- If you suck your thumb, then you may also have other habits that you would like to change. Work on finding good self-soothing habits to replace the ones you no longer want to have.
Suck on something else. If sucking on something calms and soothes you, consider trying something with less impact on your social life or dental health. Start associating the sucking behavior with a reward. For example, treat yourself to a lollipop or a piece of hard candy.
- You can also pop a mint or a piece of gum in your mouth for a similar sensation.
Keep your hands busy. You may tend to fidget or move as a way to cope with stress or anxiety. If keeping your hands busy is a way to calm down, try getting a stress ball or other “fidget toy” to fulfill this purpose. This will help you focus on something tactile without having to put it in your mouth.
Get professional help. Some adults suck their thumb because of serious anxiety problems, and they are not able to end their habit until they address its root cause. If you suspect this is the case for you, seek the services of a counselor. They can help you cope with stress and anxiety in a beneficial and productive way.
- Find a therapist by calling your local mental health clinic or your insurance provider. You can also ask for a recommendation from a physician or friend.
Trying negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement isn’t the best way to end a habit, but it does work for some people. Applying a bitter or bad tasting substance to your thumb. Or, adopt the “swear jar” concept and make yourself pay for thumbsucking. However, keep in mind that this alone will likely not be enough to deter you. It is just a way to make yourself more aware of the behavior.
- When using negative reinforcement, discontinue if your method leaves you feeling ashamed. You should never feel shame when discontinuing a habit.
Be patient. Habits don’t tend to shift overnight. Be patient with yourself and if you know that your experience won’t likely be easy. If you slip up, forgive yourself without beating yourself up. Be willing to move forward after setbacks and continue moving toward your goal.
- If you slip up, identify what caused you to slip up so you can prevent the situation in the future. For example, if you felt stressed, find new ways to handle your stress. If you felt bored, have activities that you can access or focus on your to-do list.