Thumb Sucking

Dr. Greene, I have a 3 year old that has never sucked her thumb until about 6 months ago. Now she does it mostly when she is tired. I have seen 6 & 7 year olds sucking their thumb and I don’t want this to be a problem for her as she gets older. How can I make her stop?

Thumb Sucking

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

I stood in a darkened room with two eager parents-to-be during their prenatal ultrasound. I watched their screen-lit faces at the moment they glimpsed their new baby for the very first time. The mother grasped the father’s hand tightly as they both gazed at the flickering screen. When their tiny daughter moved her thumb to her mouth, tears of joy streamed down both parents’ faces.

They knew instinctively that it is normal and healthy for babies to suck their tiny thumbs – even before they are born.

But behavior that is adorable in one so young can be a concern in an older child.

How old is too old?

According to the American Dental Association, thumb sucking does not cause permanent problems with the teeth or jaw line unless it is continued beyond 4 to 5 years of age. As it turns out, somewhere between 85% and 99% of children have finished thumb sucking spontaneously before this period.

Which children keep sucking their thumbs?

Many parents are concerned that thumb sucking at a late age is a sign of emotional immaturity or lack of self-confidence. When investigators have looked at late thumb suckers for common traits, they found only one thing in common that distinguished them from other children — a prolonged history of a strong battle with thumb sucking at an earlier age. It is striking that many well-meaning parents have actually encouraged thumb sucking by trying to forcibly take the thumb out of their children’s mouths.

When do children suck their thumbs?

As you have observed with your daughter, the most common time for sucking is when children are tired, bored, or in need of comfort. Often these children fall asleep more easily, are able to put themselves back to sleep at night more easily, and sleep through the night much earlier than their peers who do not suck their thumbs.

How do you get children to stop?

Children have control of their own thumbs when you are not looking. Pressure applied against thumb sucking can turn a natural developmental phase into an ingrained habit.

Instead, you want to create an environment where she chooses to stop on her own. You can weaken the thumb-sucking habit by distracting her when you notice her thumb in her mouth. Engage her in a way that she uses both hands.

Painting something that tastes yucky on the thumbs can make sucking them less satisfying. Commercial products are available for this purpose. Other parents have had success with pickle juice or a drop of vinegar. You might have to switch flavors periodically because people can develop a taste for almost anything (I remember my first cup of coffee – yechhh!).

If she decides she wants to stop, yet the habit continues, then helping her notice when she is doing it can help her. Otherwise, pointing it out will only seem like nagging.

Comments from other people, though, can be helpful. Her pediatrician and dentist can be important allies, helping her to feel that she wants to stop because she is growing up!

Having children she respects (and who don’t suck their thumbs) over for sleepovers can also help. If they comment on her thumb sucking, it can be a powerful motivation. If she doesn’t suck during the sleepover, it further weakens the habit.

Without nagging or battles, almost all children will stop before age 4 or 5. For the very few that don’t, their dentists can help with sleepy-time appliances and other techniques.

One way or another, soon her cuddly habit of thumb sucking will be a flickering memory of those precious days when she was so young.

February 6, 2008

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Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.

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