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My Efforts at Combating Thumb Sucking

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We all have habits. As adults, some of us smoke, others bite their nails or exhibit mild OCD behaviors, like the need to leave one light on in the home at all times, or not going to bed with dishes in the sink. I’m guilty of several of these things.

Recently, my husband and I have been trying to break our youngest daughter of her habit - sucking her thumb. I remember when she was just a few months old and kept spitting out her pacifier. My husband was thrilled because this meant she wouldn’t be a “binky” kid. A walking, talking, running toddler who still had a pacifier and had to remove it each time they spoke. By four months old we discovered our daughter was self-soothing by sucking her thumb. I had mixed feelings on it then and still do now.

During those sleepless nights where she was waking every 2-3 hours for feedings and all I wanted was for her to go back to sleep, her thumb did the trick. It was convenient, she never lost it or dropped it, and it helped her put herself back to sleep - sometimes.

But now, as she approaches the age of three, she’s still sucking her thumb. I worry about her ruining her teeth, germs being transferred from her hands to her mouth, and social acceptance. But I also try to remind myself that she’s still little. She doesn’t often suck her thumb in public or randomly throughout the day. It’s more of a habit when she’s tired and has her favorite blanket. But my husband and I have decided to work on easing her away from thumb sucking. Here are some of the techniques we’re trying.

Avoid Discipline

This technique is hard, especially for my husband. I’ve learned that treating thumb sucking as a “bad” behavior that requires disciplinary action isn’t the best approach. On a few occasions my husband has threatened to take my daughter’s toys or her favorite blanket if she doesn’t get her hands out of her mouth. This results in her crying and needing to suck her thumb to calm down. He quickly learned his efforts were having the opposite effect and abandoned this approach.

I try to remind him that she isn’t sucking her thumb to be defiant or even to annoy us (though he disagrees sometimes). It’s simply a comfort and a habit that she needs help breaking. We need to give her the encouragement and the tools she needs and not turn it into a negative situation.

Use the Right Kind of Comparisons

There’s nothing worse than comparing your child to someone else. Though my oldest daughter never sucked her thumb, never used a pacifier, or had a blanket. I’ve never told my youngest child this. I would never tell her that “Sissy didn’t do those things.” This would only make her feel badly about herself and defeat the purpose of creating a healthy and positive separation from her habit.

So, even though there are times I want to compare her to the other kids in her class at preschool that I never see sucking their thumb, I would never say it out loud. I might think it, and that’s fine. But those thoughts need to stay in my mind.

Instead, I use comparisons like, "Dora the Explorer doesn't need to suck her thumb and if she did, she couldn't carry her cool backpack or take out her map when she needs it!" I've even referenced characters from Paw Patrol and some of her other favorite TV shows. I don't make these comparisons often, but when I do they make her laugh and she thinks I'm being silly. But because I'm mentioning fictional characters, it doesn't put too much pressure on her. Not to mention, she idolizes these figures, so I think that's another bonus!

Don’t Use Nasty Tasting Stuff

My mother sometimes has “old school” methods and suggestions for doing things and this is one of those times. She’s mentioned on several occasions to use bad tasting things like hot sauce on my daughter’s thumb. They even sell products specifically for this purpose!

But again, the last thing I want to do is create a negative experience for my child. And I don’t have the heart to put anything on her precious little hands that she would then put in her mouth and could make her gag or get sick. For me, that’s just not an option.

Talk About It

Though my little girl is just three years old, she is very smart and verbal for her age. I attribute a lot of that to having an older sibling. She’s constantly following her sister around, imitating her, and joining in on our conversations. Because of this, it’s fairly easy for me to have a conversation with her.

I’ve sat with my youngest daughter and talked about her sucking her thumb. I explained that we’d be visiting the dentist soon for her annual check-up and that we don’t want her thumb pushing out her beautiful teeth. I told her this could lead to her needing braces, which she’s familiar with since her cousins all have them! We also talked about germs. I explained that when she touches things at daycare, or outside, they get on her hands. And if mommy isn’t there to make sure she washes them right away, those germs can go into her mouth when she sucks her thumb and then into her belly, making her sick.

She seemed to understand what I was saying, though rationalizing with a toddler is never as effective as you’d hope!

Understand the Process

The most helpful piece of information I gathered about this entire situation was one that helped me and my husband more than it helped our daughter. Believe it or not, thumb sucking is a type of phase. Often, kids will grow out of it by age four or five. And this happens for a variety of reasons.

Some kids just grow out of it. Others find different ways to comfort themselves or no longer need their thumb to soothe their worries and fears. While other children, especially those that suck their thumb regularly, might find it to be socially unacceptable - meaning their friends might point it out and comment on it. It would break my heart if another child said to my daughter, “Only babies suck their thumbs!” But of course, my husband thinks that just might do the trick!

Either way, from what I’ve read I don’t need to be concerned with this habit until my daughter’s baby teeth start falling out and her permanent ones are present. Once her permanent teeth come in, her thumb could potentially shift her teeth out of place. I don’t want this to happen so I’m trying to be proactive and encourage her to step away from this habit sooner rather than later.

No matter what approach I use, I’m going to remain patient, calm, and positive. We’re going to conquer this as a family!

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