If your little one takes to sucking their thumb or fingers,
it can be met with mixed emotions.
Sometimes there’s a bit of relief or elation because your child can soothe themselves!! It can really come in handy.
But there’s also usually a bit of, “Oh crap, how are we going to get rid of this habit down the road?”
So, I’d like to share a story of how we helped our then 5 year old to stop sucking her thumb…
Stella started sucking her thumb by the age of 9 months. She found it, took to it, and it REALLY helped us when it came to her soothing skills.
Stella also has a very strong personality which can mean that getting her to do something she doesn’t want to do can be interesting! There’s also a million positive aspects to her personality, but we’ll just keep it about thumb sucking for today ;)
So, for almost 4.5 years she would suck her thumb basically any time she was sitting still - while watching TV, at the dinner table not actively eating, any time we were driving, and definitely during sleep.
It was a PROCESS, which is why I recommend waiting until your child is old enough to comprehend, get on board with the plan and participate in getting it done.
Here’s how we worked it out in case it helps any of you:
Step #1 - AWARENESS
By the time she was about 4.5 years of age, we began talking to her about stopping the habit and how we will someday plan to help her. She was slowly starting to become more aware of it because SO OFTEN it was happening out of habit and she wouldn’t even realize she was doing it.
When we would talk about it, it was always with positivity and encouragement, never shaming or blaming. Also, getting a kid’s book that talks about thumb sucking can be a great help! We read Thumbs Up, Brown Bear by Michael Dahl a million times ;)
Step #2 - MAKE A PLAN
Every once in a while we would ask Stella when she thought it would be a good time to stop. She would say, “When I’m five!” So we held her to that and decided that’s when we’d start the process.
Step #3 - PRACTICE
Leading up to her 5th birthday, we would talk about it more and she started practicing being MORE aware of it, trying to stop when she felt she could. We would help her by gently reminding her that her thumb was in her mouth and she would take it out - or give us a glare, meaning ‘not now Mom, I need this right now.’ No pressure, we let that go.
But eventually, the glares became less and we would help her eliminate the thumb sucking in different situations. We started with drives in the car and I have to say, it REALLY helped that it was winter. When the gloves were on, they stayed on and that helped big time.
Then we worked on not sucking her thumb while watching TV. This was a BIG one. She would ALWAYS suck her thumb while watching TV without even realizing it. There were plenty of times when I would catch the thumb in her mouth and I’d remind her, she would glare and say “No” but then I would gently remind her that it’s either the thumb or the show, and she always picked the show. ;)
Praise and encouragement will get you far.
I also want to say here that praise and encouragement will get you far. Any time she would voluntarily take her thumb out, not suck her thumb in particular situations where she always used to or anything like that, we would compliment and praise it up and down! But if ever we were having a tougher time with it, there was still encouragement - “That’s okay Stella, we know it’s hard to change a habit. You’ll get there, and we can try again later…”
After a few weeks of this we were definitely seeing improvements with less thumb sucking during the day, and eventually not at all! But, there was still bedtime/overnight. How on Earth were we going to do this?!
Step #4 - GET THEIR BUY-IN
This step sort of happened by accident but the timing was perfect. Just shy of her 5th birthday, we had a dentist appointment. This made it so that Stella was able to hear from a doctor just how thumb sucking would impact her teeth and mouth in the long run (some things we were already noticing). Our dentist told us there was a sort of mouth brace that could be put in that would prevent her from being able to suck her thumb, and this is what we were going to have to look at doing if we couldn’t do it ourselves. This really motivated Stella, so after our Tuesday appointment, we decided that Friday we would start helping her to stop sucking her thumb overnight.
Step #5 - GET ‘ER DONE
So, I really think the trick to eliminating thumb sucking is waiting until the colder months of the year! When it came to helping Stella stopping thumb sucking overnight and at bedtime, we put gloves on her hands. This is what did it!
The first few nights it did take her a lot longer to fall asleep. And the first night or two, after going into her room when she was asleep, I would notice the glove had come off. I would gently put it back on if I thought I could or just left it. We would continue to talk about it, encourage her, and motivate her day after day. And let me tell you, when she woke up that first morning after having kept the glove on all night, she was ECSTATIC and so were we!
After that, she went to bed with a glove on for a good month or two, just to be sure it would stick. I’m not saying anyone else’s child would have to wear it for that long, but we were being extra cautious not to fall back into old habits. Plus, like I said, it was still pretty chilly outside so that helped. I’m honestly not sure how we would have done it if not without the glove… perhaps co-sleeping and holding her hand? But we hadn’t been co-sleeping at that time and since I was 5 months pregnant with our third child, I didn’t want to get into a new habit like that at that time.
Within weeks of fully stopping the habit, her mouth shape and teeth went back to “normal.” No more overbite or teeth growing in funny directions..
So, to summarize the main points that worked for us:
Hope that helps!
For more useful tips, be sure to check out the Bringing Up Baby podcast.
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