5 easy steps to give up the thumb

by | Oct 5, 2021 | Toddlers

5 easy steps to give up the thumb

If you’re noticing thumb sucking is happening frequently, it may be time to instigate 5 easy steps to help your child give up the thumb. But like all other things parenting, it’s something you decide to do when you’re ready.

For a newborn or young infant under 6 months, sucking is calming, indeed around the 3-6 month mark all infants suck their hands, and this can include their thumb. But by the time 12 months rolls around, the calming effect of sucking has often worn off – unless it’s become a habit. And it’s then you may like your child to ditch the thumb. Especially if they are over the age of three.

Is it an “all the time” thing?

Maybe up until now it hasn’t been an issue. Maybe your baby was only using it for a few minutes at a time to soothe himself, but now it’s happened.  Your child has discovered that sucking his thumb is even better than his favourite stuffed toy or Winnie the Pooh blanket when it comes to comfort.

Now she sucks her thumb while falling asleep, while watching TV, when she’s scared, when she’s upset.  And now that it’s an “all the time thing”, it’s time to for you to consider helping your child to give up the thumb.

While it’s perfectly reasonable to want your child to give up the thumb, it might be good to know that some of the perceived dangers of thumb sucking might not be based on fact. Here are some common misconceptions:

The myths

  1. My child will still be sucking his thumb when he’s 12!

Not likely. Statistics show that less than 9% of children who suck their thumbs still continue over the age of 5, with the vast majority breaking the habit between the ages of 2 and 4. And of those children still sucking their thumbs at 5, most will stop as they start to identify with their peer groups and don’t want to be the only one in school with their thumb in their mouth at mat time.

  1. It will ruin her teeth

This can be true, but only after the kids get their permanent teeth, which will start to happen between 6 and 8 years of age. In older children, chronic thumb sucking can start to change the shape of the oral cavity. But luckily, the vast majority of kids will have stopped on their own by then anyway.

  1. He’s using it as a crutch

While it’s true that young children who discover their thumbs do use it for comfort, this doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to learn other coping mechanisms for dealing with stress or self-soothing later in life.

  1. A pacifier or dummy is better

A lot of parents tell me they would rather their child use a soother or dummy, because at least they can take the soother away. But in my experience, too many parents say this about the dummy, and then don’t actually take it away! If the dummy is their child’s sleep prop, and they use it for comfort, then it becomes just as difficult to take away from the child as helping them give up the thumb! Lots of parents let dummy-use linger on way longer than they planned to. I had one client who confessed that she still let her 6-year-old sleep with his dummy because of this very reason.

So, with these common fears out of the way, there really is no right or wrong, only your parental perception of when it’s the right time to give up the thumb. Just like some mothers use bottles and others breastfeed, or some parents use time-outs and others don’t, there are many ways of doing things. If you’ve decided that thumb sucking needs to go, here are some ways to help your child give it up for good. These tips are designed for children 3 years and up, but can also work for younger toddlers.

The key is knowing why and when

The key to helping your child give up the thumb is getting to the heart of why your child sucks her thumb. Every child is different, and some might only use their thumb when they’re trying to sleep, others only when they’re upset, and others at every opportunity!

In each case it has become a habit and as we all know, habits are hard to break.  One really effective tool is the reward system. Offering a benefit to NOT sucking their thumbs is sometimes all the encouragement kids need to give up the thumb.

But first it’s important to find out why and when your child turns to his or her thumb.

Step 1. For the first week, keep a pen and paper handy, and write down every single time you see your child’s thumb in their mouth. At the end of the week, go through your list, and see if there are any consistencies. Does she always suck her thumb around 4 p.m. while watching her favourite show? Does he suck his thumb around the other toddlers at the playgroup because he’s nervous or shy?

Step 2.  Identify what the payoff is for your child. For example, if you notice that every time she hurts herself she sticks her thumb in, then a conclusion would be that her thumb helps her deal with pain. If you notice that the thumb goes in whenever she’s watching TV, then the thumb is being used when she’s idle.

Step 3. Remind and distract: Now that you know what she’s using it for, you can offer her something in exchange for the thumb. For example, if she’s about to watch her favourite show, offer her a bowl of grapes to eat while the show is on. If he sucks his thumb when he gets hurt and he just tripped on the stairs, you can rush over and offer him a long hug followed by a quick distraction like a game or favourite toy.

Step 4. A reward chart for a day completed with no sucking can be helpful. You can offer your child a treat or small toy at the end of the day if she’s successful. I also find that the more immediate the reward, the better the outcome. If your child is old enough, suggest that she come tell you whenever she feels like sucking her thumb and doesn’t, so you can offer up a reward. It doesn’t have to be a big treat, think just one M&M or gummy bear for each time she resists the urge.

 Step 5. You will need to find some other alternative that can be just as comforting or develop a strategy to cue your child to give up the thumb. Especially if you have a nighttime sucker. Bedtime tends to be a very popular time for thumb sucking. Tying a ribbon around the thumb, or a light pair of gloves can work as a reminder or cue, so when your child brings his thumb to his mouth, he gets an instant reminder about what the goals are. You can also buy your child a new sleep toy that has texture that he can rub his thumb against instead of sucking it.

It takes time and encouragement

Remember that bad habits are hard to break, and it takes time and encouragement to see results. This is true of a lot of things around sleep too.

You’ll likely find that punishment or nagging won’t work well when trying to discourage a habit like thumb sucking. Children are notorious for power struggles, and you don’t want to turn it into a battle of wills. Parents often come out second best on those occasions.

And a bonus tip: If your child is old enough, you can sit him down and tell him about a habit you tried hard to break (giving up smoking, drinking coffee or nail biting, for instance) and make it clear why you’d like him to give up the thumb. Kids love stories about their parents. Then, if you can think of a way to make it about him rather than you, you’ll have greater success. So, for example, if you’re worried about his teeth, you could say how great it would be if he had the best smile at kindy photos next week. This can help internalize the process.

Once your child sees that there are other things she can do to calm herself, and has been reminded enough times to take her thumb out of her mouth, she’ll give up the thumb before you know it!

Have you broken the thumb sucker habit? What helped? Share your story below to help others.

Are you following along on Facebook or Instagram? I’d love to have you join my community of parents with some humour and tips along the way.