Thumb Habits: Tips to Help Your Child Stop
At least a few times a week I get questions about thumb sucking/ finger habits in my office. I can see the panic in parents’ eyes and almost hear the “cha-ching cha-ching” of the dollar signs adding up in their head anticipating multiple sets of braces in their future. A thumb/ finger/ pacifier habit can be an important part of development for a baby into the toddler years as they are learning to cope and self-soothe. If these habits go on for too long, however, the presence of the thumb in the mouth, as well as the actual force from the sucking, can cause changes in the position of the teeth, size of the palate, and even the structure of the face. Generally these dental and skeletal changes require intervention from an orthodontist at some point, and the treatment could range from a simple appliance to a couple of sets of braces (or 4 sets in the case of yours truly!).
I get quite a variety of stories from parents in my practice about how they get rid of their child’s pacifier specifically. We hear it all ranging from clipping the end, to the “paci fairy” picking it up on the front porch, to magical unicorns (or a pony with a fake glittery horn) taking it at their 2nd birthday party. I absolutely love all of the creativity, but the thumb is a whole other bear to tackle with its own limitations, namely skin, bones, and cartilage! Sorry mama, but the magical fairies and unicorns probably aren’t going to be able to bail you out of this one.
There are definitely ways to help your child kick this habit, but timing is critical. My advice to you is based partially on guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, partially on clinical experience, and partially on my being a fellow resident of the tumultuous town of Toddler-ville. Trust me, I get it!
Ideally any of these habits are totally gone by your child’s 3rd birthday. This comes with a few exceptions: I don’t recommend pushing the issue in the case of special needs children, a recent stressful or traumatic life event, or even in the case of a new baby in the house as this can be a hard time for your toddler and regression is almost always a guarantee. So my point is, be realistic and proactive, but don’t push it if your child is not ready. You know them best. I equate this to taking away my 2-year-old’s coping mechanism/ one true love, “Green Baby” (think foot-long, dirty sock monkey). And well, that would just be cruel and unusual punishment for her, for me, her teachers, and anyone else she encounters for that matter.
Around three-years-old is a great time to raise awareness of the habit and to start with positive reinforcement to stop the thumb/ finger habit– think potty training tactics. We are currently going through that at my house, and my daughter happens to be strong-willed and stubborn like her mama. Force and shaming will only work against you at this point, and likely cause a rebellion. Make the experience exciting and empowering for your little one with stickers and prizes. Use achievable short-term goals, for example, “if you don’t suck your thumb this whole week in your car seat, then you can……. (fill in the blank with what reward works best for your child).” Try a sticker chart to help them visualize and get excited about their progress. Consistency is going to be key, and both parents (and any other caretakers) need to all be on the same page with their rewards and their language.
As your little one continues to make progress and become more aware of their habit, continue to stay positive and avoid nagging or punishing. When you feel like they are catching on and also more interested in modeling behavior of their peers, make subtle (not shaming) observations. “You know, I didn’t see any kids sucking their thumbs at the soccer game today. What a bunch of big kids!”… “In the whole 5 hours of that dance recital, none of the ballerinas had their fingers in their mouth. That’s impressive!”… And leave it at that. On this same note, around 4 or 5-years-old as your child starts pre-school or kindergarten and is potentially around a different group of children for the first time, they are definitely observant enough to note that they are doing something different that may not be acceptable. This may be one of the few times you’ll be grateful for peer pressure as a parent!
I will say, *most* children will “outgrow” the habit or quit on their own by this point. There are the select few who either have zero interest in quitting or those who only do it subconsciously when they are sleepy, upset, etc. You may have heard of or seen ads for the funky tasting polishes or thumb braces that claim to fix this problem. Again, you know your child best. If these are things that would be completely mortifying and traumatic for your child, avoid them at all costs. (This could cause more anxiety and make the problem worse.) If these are things that may just be a physical or sensory reminder to help them not do it subconsciously and they understand the purpose is not punishment, then by all means, give it a try.
The same idea goes for an appliance that your dentist can place. In theory, the cement that they are put on with is “permanent”, but so are braces, and I have seen patients who have removed their braces between every. single. adjustment. If they want the appliance off and they aren’t ready to quit, then you may as well flush that money you spent on the appliance down the drain instead. Kids are clever, fingers are curious, tongues are strong, and old habits die hard! So is there even a place for these “habit appliances”? Absolutely! They can work wonders in a matter of a couple of weeks, but again, only if your child is committed and ready to quit for good.
Don’t let your frustration get the best of you and cause set backs. I’m trying to do the same with potty training currently. I’m getting solace in the fact that I know she won’t be in diapers forever—just like your child will not suck their thumb forever! Just continue to empower them to work through this hard time with your positivity and encouragement. Find a pediatric dentist and/or orthodontist who can support YOU with positivity and encouragement as well. Maybe mama is really the one who deserves the stickers and prizes when this is all said and done? 😊