Help to Break the Thumbsucking Habit 

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Much ink has been spent on explaining and theorizing on the possible causes of thumb- sucking. 

The major theory of thumb-sucking has been the "Hungry Mouth" theory, that is, that a child has an emotional hunger and he has to put something in the mouth to satisfy that need. They say a baby is one big mouth; he feels, tests out, and expresses everything through his mouth. 

Thumb sucking becomes a substitute for comfort, pleasure, and safety. That is why extra milk or food doesn't stop thumb sucking. It may work only for the time that the mouth is busy eating. Well, so much for the theories; let's talk about the facts. 

The fact is that thumb-sucking is a learned habit just as other habits are, but there is one thing that is different from all other habits. The difference is that in some cases a child may form a habit of thumb sucking before he is born, forming the habit in the womb. That is why many children are born thumb-suckers. 

The thumb finds its way to the mouth and once it finds its way, it keeps going there and just stays there for longer and longer periods. This doesn't mean the baby is insecure or anxious. This is a habit and it demands sucking. It is also true that some children by nature have a strong sucking response and therefore they need to do more sucking. 

The chances are fifty-fifty that a natural thumb-sucker will quit on his own before he is five years old. Most children quit before they reach their eighth birthday.

1. The first measure in dealing with excessive thumb-sucking is to pacify the natural sucking response. Give a child more sucking time. Fix the bottle with a slow-flowing nipple if the child is at the bottle stage. A pacifier may also satisfy that sucking need. Fewer of the babies who use pacifiers for the first few months of life become thumb-suckers. Furthermore, those who become dependent on the pacifier tend to give it up sooner than the thumb-sucking children give up the thumb-sucking. 
2. Refrain from fussing at, ridiculing, or making any negative comments about thumb-sucking as it would only add to child's tension and shame and may induce more thumb-sucking. Advise visitors, friends, and relatives to ignore it, in case they choose to comment on it. 
3. Do not reward thumb-sucking unwittingly. Avoid touching, hugging or patting the child during the act of thumb-sucking. However, when child stops sucking the thumb, it's a good time to touch and hug and express your love. 
4. Thumb- sucking is an automatic behavior. Break the automatic part of the habit by helping the child to become fully aware of the act of the thumb-sucking. Have him look at himself in the mirror while thumb-sucking. Ask him to describe how the thumb feels in the mouth and how the lips and mouth feel. Ask him to describe how the thumb looks immediately after the thumb- sucking.
5. Teach the child a technique of relaxation. You can use deep breathing relaxation or ask the child to make a tight fist with both hands, tensing entire arms right up to shoulder and then releasing them with a relaxing sigh. When the child gets an urge to suck his thumb, he may instead practice the relaxation technique. 
6. Choose specific place/s and times when child may suck his thumb. Contract with the child to suck his thumb for a specific length of time. Use a kitchen timer to indicate that the time for thumb-sucking is over. Gradually reduce it every day by 10%. Suppose you made a plan for John to suck his thumb five times a day for 60 seconds each time. Make it 54 seconds for the next day, 48 seconds the following day, then 42 seconds, and each following day, go on reducing the length accordingly. Set the kitchen timer each time. Be there to supervise the entire operation and as the child stops thumb-sucking at the sound of the kitchen timer buzzer, reward him by praise, a hug or candy. 
7. Give the child a "thumb sub" that he can put inside the mouth and suck on it. Some
children may be satisfied with squeezing their thumb and sucking on a hard candy. 
8. Choose a "penalty", such as paying back a dime or a nickel from his pocket money to you. Inform the child of what the penalty is and when he would have to pay the penalty. If the child sucks his thumb other than the specified place and/or time, ask him to pay the penalty right away. Observe him and consistently charge the penalty. Praise him every time a day goes without a penalty or with lesser penalty. Chart the behavior and reward his efforts. A reward chart increases the chances that a child will practice a new behavior.

* This is an educational article for general information and not professional advice. Consult a professional for your specific case

Help your child stop thumb sucking with a fun children’s storybook, "The Little Bear who Sucked his Thumb," written by dentist Dr. Dragan Antolos.

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