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A Thumb Sucking Action Plan

A Thumb Sucking Action Plan

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I have a newly turned 6 year old daughter with a pretty major thumb sucking habit. She started sucking her thumb pretty much as soon as it’s even physically possible to do that, and my husband and I were all “Awesome! No more lost pacifiers! Sleep for us! Win!”, and at that point, it was. But here we are 5 and a half years later and now we’re worried about permanent teeth and braces and long term consequences, oh my.

The Internet seems to fall into two categories on this, the first being to put every revolting substance and bizarre contraption on the thumb to dissuade sucking, and the second being more “it’ll happen when it happens, just chill, man.” I think there has to be somewhere in the middle.

A few things to note: she doesn’t suck her thumb at school, because she thinks it’s not allowed there. I’m not sure where she picked this idea up, but I’ve not dissuaded her from believing that. The potential for peer shaming was a big concern of mine, so I’m glad that that particular issue has worked itself out. The time she is most likely to suck her thumb is while watching TV, in the car and when she’s tired. Basically, when she’s not physically active, her thumb is in her mouth. She also sucks her thumb to fall asleep, but doesn’t keep it in her mouth all night.

Up this point, we’ve basically just been reminding her to stop when she’s sucking her thumb especially when she’s watching TV, but.. well, you can imagine how well that’s working. My husband is a lot more concerned about this then I am, and he tends to get in her about it more then I do, which is frustrating for both of them. One idea that I’ve proposed is that she can chew gum while she watches TV to give her something else to do with her mouth, so we’ve started that recently, but again, that’s just not a long term solution.

Basically, I think we need to deal with the issue one thumb sucking opportunity at a time (TV, car, bedtime, etc), but I’m really not sure how to start and how to go about this. I feel like I’m a pretty good creative problem solver, and this has me stumped. I don’t want to make her feel badly about it, and I don’t want to take away a self soothing strategy, but I also don’t want her to deal with long term consequences from this, physically or socially.

So, master of all things advice related, how do I get my kid to stop sucking her thumb without scarring her for life?

I have a thumb sucker. He is 5 and a half. He sucks his thumb at bedtime, or whenever he’s curled up with his blankies. Like your daughter, he doesn’t keep his thumb in his mouth all night, and we’ve firmly established that the blankies are for bedtime only and they live in his room and do not ever leave. (Since his thumb sucking habit is directly linked to the feel and smell of the blankies — if we let him carry them around, I’m sure we’d see a lot more sucking during the day.)

Here’s what I’m actively doing about it right now:

Uh.

Not too much, beyond the blankie rule. I’ve noticed a natural decline in the amount of thumb sucking he does as he gets older, without us nagging or making a Thing about it. In fact, we briefly noticed the opposite — if we did comment on it on request that he stop in front of his brothers or other people, the need to suck on his thumb (or hand, or toys, etc.) seemed to become more compulsive, like a nervous tic. So we stopped. His dentist is content with our reports that he’s not sucking his thumb all night or anything, and is more in the camp of “it’ll stop when it stops,” and isn’t pushing us to DO something about it or push back the blankie issue yet.

I too was a finger sucker/blankie addict as a child, and stopped both eventually, when I was ready. (I was older than your daughter — maybe 7 or 8?) I still appreciate how patient my parents were about it. I had several false starts on the “saying goodbye to Cribby” thing (my blankie was an old, tattered crib sheet) and it was always returned to me if I changed my mind. So it sort of naturally became something *I* wanted to do, to prove something to them and myself. I remember occasionally still treating myself to some furtive, bedtime finger sucking after that, but I’d gotten the message: Only babies do that. I’m not a baby.

I got that message, by the way, WITHOUT a need for my parents to nag or shame or bother me. It was always very matter-of-fact, like, “you won’t always want to suck on your fingers, when you’re a big girl and you’re ready, you’ll stop.”

(It probably helped a lot that I was the youngest child of SEVEN, because of all the things to worry about, the idea of me sucking my fingers until college didn’t rank very high.)

One last dental anecdote: I did have a ton of orthodontic issues, but none of them (save for a slight overbite) were solely the fault of my finger sucking. I just had too many big permanent teeth in a very small, crowded mouth. My oldest (who never sucked his thumb or used a pacifier or ANYTHING) has inherited this problem, while my chronic thumb sucker’s teeth are just fine and nicely even, so far.

It’s slightly different in your daughter’s case, since the thumb sucking isn’t tied to a lovey object, but is just something she likes doing with her hands and mouth. Neither of which you can confine to a bedroom or take away from her. Here’s what I would suggest:

1) Stop nagging or making a “bad” thing out of it. This is mostly pointless as you simply can’t watch her all the time, and she’ll learn to do it when you’re not around, because she’s possibly not emotionally ready to soothe herself in other ways. There’s a fine line between a habit and a compulsion or tic, and making her constantly associate a stressed-out “uh-oh I’ve been caught” feeling with the sensation of yanking her thumb out of her mouth might push her in the wrong direction.

2) Continue to offer her gum or other things to suck/gnaw on or fidget with. Let her sip on a nice thick smoothie from a straw in front of the TV. Keep her hands occupied in the car with a special grab-bag of small toys or puzzles that you rotate occasionally. When you catch her sucking, just immediately and wordlessly redirect her with something, anything else. No, this isn’t a long-term solution but don’t worry about it. (My 8-year-old still uses Therapy Chews for his oral motor and self-regulation issues, and GUH. I HATE THEM. But for now, he needs them.) You’re just trying to cut down on a habit in the short term: a habit that she will likely outgrow on her own in the long term anyway.

3) Absolutely encourage the idea that thumb sucking isn’t allowed at school or out in public. Maybe refer to it as “bedtime thing.” Peer pressure will probably be a bigger component to breaking the habit than all the parental nagging in the world, and that’s okay. I know it stings to imagine another kid pointing at her and telling her that only babies suck their thumbs, but in this case, that kid is just going to be more persuasive than you. (And it’s not like she could spin around and look at you all betrayed, like, “Why didn’t you TELL me that?” because I’m sure she’s already gotten that message loud and clear that this is a habit you’d like her to stop.)

If her dentist hasn’t spoken to her directly about it at one of her appointments, ask him or her to, in a gentle, non-pushy way. Ours usually asks Ezra to try his best to keep his thumb and fingers out of his mouth, like a big boy, so he can keep his handsome smile, etc.

I don’t know if those talks have had any effect, but overall I’m personally pretty satisfied with our current action plan of mild inaction. The habit is lessening on its own and I don’t have to feel like a jerk who nags him all the time. He’s a terribly sensitive and attached little boy, and my gut is just telling me not to force this issue (thumb and blankie) yet. He’ll make the leap when he’s ready, and I will be his biggest cheerleader because God, I STILL remember how hard it was to say goodbye to those special comforts of young childhood.

Worst-case, for your daughter, this habit will die when sleepovers start becoming a thing, or…yeah, she gets fitted with an overbite appliance that changes the way it feels. I know there are some adult thumb suckers who wear bite guards from the drugstore at night and stuff — if there are any out there reading this I’d be super interested in hearing what you maybe wished your parents did or didn’t do about the habit when you were the OP’s daughter’s age.

(Or if you’re just like, whatever, I kept my teddy bear and suck my thumb when I’m anxious, and I’d still rather do that than be constantly popping Xanax or stress-drinking three bottles of wine.)

Published April 9, 2014. Last updated April 9, 2014.
Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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