Babies have a natural reflex to suck, and many find it comforting to suck their thumb or fingers – even before birth.
It’s a common behaviour in babies and young children as it helps to self-soothe and it usually stops on its own by the time they start school, as they gain different coping mechanisms when they develop language skills. However, for some children – and adults – the connection between sucking on ones thumb or fingers and the feeling of being safe and comfortable is hard to let go of and can turn into a bad habit.
Here are some tips to help stop thumbsucking:
Make Sure It’s Not Causing Other Problems
Thumbsucking is a normal, natural behavior for many children, and is something they do to comfort themselves and alleviate anxiety, but it can lead to a range of other problems. The major problem is dental, as thumbsucking can sometimes affect a child’s bite, the alignment of their teeth, or the way the roof of their mouth develops. Socially, thumbsuckers are often teased or ostracized, as thumbsucking is seen as a “baby” action. Medically, thumbsucking can cause issues with the skin around the fingers, causing them to crack or the nail to become dormant. It can also increase the risk of infection in the nail bed, which can turn nasty if it is then placed in the mouth.
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. In many cases, they might not even be aware that they are sucking their thumb, but knowing your child’s triggers can allow you to adopt a different routine or strategy to stop the habit.
A lot of children suck their thumbs because it results in adult attention, even if it is conflict-based as parents battle with children to break the habit. As with all attention-seeking behaviours, the more you pay attention to it, the more they will do it. If you suspect this is the case, just ignore them.
Give positive praise every time your child DOES NOT suck their thumb, come up with a reward system (such as a sticker chart) or come up with a goal to reach to win a prize. Gradually extend the period of time between awards for not sucking thumbs.
As mentioned, thumbsucking can be completely involuntary. Your child may even be at the age where they really want to stop sucking their thumb or fingers but cannot break the subconscious habit, especially if they do it whilst asleep. There are a variety of products on the market that aid in breaking “hands in mouth” habits, including creams to rub into hands and polish to paint on nails., as well as socks or gloves to place over the thumb alone. These taste disgusting and may serve as a reminder when hands creep into mouths.
Remember to Include Your Child
No matter what method you choose, it will not work if your child does not want to stop thumbsucking. Talk to your child about why they need to stop sucking their thumb. Explain your plan and make sure they know what to expect. Ask them what might help them stop and let them choose rewards and strategies for their own success.
What If Its Me?
If you suck your own thumb, the above rules apply. Identify why you suck your thumb, look for your own patterns and triggers and plan ahead. Provide yourself with substitutes, keep yourself busy and be kind to yourself. After all, if you have been sucking your thumb for sometime, its a long, hard process to break the habit.