Thumb Sucking and Young Children
It is quite normal for most young children suck their thumb or use a pacifier. But when is it too much and how can we help our kids to stop this habit?
When does thumb-sucking start and stop?
Sucking is a normal reflex for young children. At 10 weeks your baby has already begun thumb sucking in the womb! Thumb-sucking is a natural way for babies and young children to soothe themselves when they feel stressed or anxious.
Most children out grow this habit on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. Usually by the time kids enter a school setting the habit stops because of peer pressure.
Keep in mind that even though your child has stopped sucking her thumb she may go back to doing it in time where she feels stressed or anxious.
When is thumb-sucking a problem?
Thumb-sucking is not usually a problem unless your child continues the habit frequently after the age of 4.
Thumb-sucking and pacifier use can also cause dental problems. If you notice your child’s upper front teeth tipping towards the lip this may be a concern. Talk with your dentist about your child’s dental health.
Your child may have started to feel embarrassed by thumb-sucking and may need your help in stopping the habit.
How can I help my child stop thumb-sucking?
- Ignore: sometimes children develop habits or behaviors to get their parents’ attention. If you notice that your child is sucking her thumb to get your attention it’s better to ignore that behavior. That way your sending your child the message that this behavior won’t get your attention and to try something else.Thumb-sucking usually goes away on its own and sometimes the less attention given to it the better to help children stop the habit.
- Positive reinforcement: Praise and encourage your child when she doesn’t suck her thumb. This shows your child what behavior is acceptable from her and that she can get your attention in this positive way.
- Find out the triggers: If your child is sucking her thumb as a way to cope with stress or anxiety you can identify those moments and help your child relax in other ways like offering a hug or talking with her to prepare her for the situation.If your child is sucking her thumb in moments where she is bored then keeping her occupied or using her hands in play can help discourage this habit and help her have fun as well.
- Gentle reminders: Sometimes your child may return to sucking her thumb out of habit. When this helps a simple reminder for her to stop is all that’s necessary.
What not to do:
We’ve talked about how to help your child stop thumb-sucking, however you should also keep in mind there are things to avoid when trying to stop this habit.
- Embarrassing or making your child feel guilty: Don’t try to use embarrassment as a way to stop this habit. This will only make your child feed bad about herself and more self-conscience. Avoid phrases like “be a good girl” or “stop being a bad girl” since these phrases talk about your child not the behavior itself.
- Punishment: Thumb-sucking can sometimes be a hard habit for children to stop. Young children especially find it hard to control their impulses for biological reasons. Therefor punishment for this kind of behavior is not very suitable and may just upset your child rather than stop the habit. In general positive reinforcement of accepted behavior can be more effective than punishment for unwanted behavior.
- Avoid placing bitter tastes on her finger or pacifier: A common method parents use to stop thumb-sucking is to place a bad taste like vinegar on the child’s fingers or pacifier. Avoid using these negative methods, in general positive reinforcement is a more effective method. As mentioned, most children outgrow this habit in their own time. If your child is sucking her thumb to self sooth when she feels stressed or when she is bored it is more effective to address the reason behind the behavior to stop it altogether.
I hope these tips are helpful. Remember to talk to your child about stopping the habit as well so she accepts your reminders and cues.
Remember not to worry too much about it, this is a habit most children experience and usually outgrow on their own at some point.
American Academy of Pediatrics
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