Ditch those Dirty Habits Part I: Thumb-Sucking

Thumb-sucking looks so cute in the prenatal ultrasounds, but may portend a problem after birth and even into adulthood! It is not a sign of insecurity, but rather a form of calming. Problems occur if it is particularly vigorous, since the front of the jaw may change shape and the teeth may be affected. The thumb may become misshapen and fungal infections may occur under the nail – something you want to prevent!

There are multiple methods to try to tame this habit. Pulling your child’s thumb out of the mouth is not recommended, and ultimately becomes a game or a test of wills. Thumb-sucking tends to increase or appear in times of stress, tiredness, or boredom, so try getting your child to do some activity involving both hands as  encouragement to stop the behavior.

Two important steps are necessary to begin fixing this stressful situation. First, your child has to be made aware of the sucking, and second, your child has to want to stop. You can try some signals to remind him that his thumb/fingers are in the mouth. These can be verbal, such as a funny word which you both agree upon when the action occurs such as “slurp”. Or, you can try a hand signal which only you and your child know. When you create a game to discourage thumb-sucking behavior, you will find your son to be more resilient in following through.

Once kindergarten approaches, you know it definitely has to stop. Can you imagine the ridicule from his peers? Mark a day on the calendar (before kindergarten begins) as a goal for when the thumb-sucking will stop. Make it a holiday or something recognizable and place the calendar where he can see it. Up until that day, give practice time where there is no thumb-sucking. Praise for small steps toward stopping as positive reinforcement and prove to him that success is easier than it may seem. Reward success with small toys or extra play time – rewards you know he will respond to. Have a larger (but not extravagant) reward when the day to stop has been reached. This is a reward that will be removed if sucking begins again, but will be back when it stops.

By Bruce Gach, M.D. 

Bruce is the managing partner of Livermore-Pleasanton-San Ramon Pediatrics Group. He is a Board Certified practicing pediatrician with over 30 years of experience caring for children. He has served on numerous committees dealing with child health and development.  www.livermorepleasantonpeds.com