Thumbsucking Statistics and Ways to Help Your Child Stop
In 1977 researchers studied fifty habitual thumbsucking children between ages one and seven. Researchers compared habitual thumbsuckers to children who did not suck their thumb. Studies showed that thumbsuckers tended to be bottle-fed rather than breastfed. The child who was weaned later was less likely to suck his thumb. The thumbsucking children tended to have been fed on a schedule rather than on cue. And 96 percent of the thumbsuckers had been left to fall asleep alone after being fed. But not one of the non-thumbsuckers was left alone to fall asleep. Researchers theorize that during sleep persons return to primitive reflexes, such as sucking and hand-to-mouth actions.
In our pediatric practice, we have noticed that babies who are nursed to sleep and not weaned until they are ready are less likely to become habitual thumbsuckers. Consider breastfeeding as a sort of prevention for habitual thumbsucking.
Like most normal, but bothersome behaviors, if you do nothing but accept and ignore thumbsucking, it will eventually find its way into other occupations. But if the habit persists and is harming the child’s teeth, try these tips:
Satiate Sucking Needs
Sucking satisfies the need for attachment. A need that is filled goes away and a need that is not filled stays as a habit. If you have a “sucky baby,” let her suck to her heart’s content during early infancy. Breastfeed on cue as long as possible. Let your baby suck your fingers. After the baby’s hunger is satisfied, allow non-nutritive sucking (sucking on an “empty” breast, finger or pacifier, collapsible bottle nipple). An interesting study confirmed that babies who get their sucking needs met seldom become habitual thumbsuckers.
Offer Early Alternatives to Sucking
If you are blessed with a baby with a strong sucking drive, instead of pacifying him, try alternative methods. Consider rocking, massage, playing animated games, and singing. The earlier baby learns that there are other ways to find comfort in addition to the breast, bottle, thumb, or pacifier, the more he will seek alternatives to oral gratification later.
Keep Thumbs Busy
Bored little thumbs often seek their friend, the mouth, when there is nothing better to do. Busy the bored child. When you see the thumb heading toward the mouth, distract and redirect the child into an activity that keeps both hands busy.
Keep life Calm
As your toddler gets older he will use his thumb to help himself relax. This is good. You then do what you can to keep peaceful yourself, and that will flow over into a peaceful atmosphere in the home. Model relaxing ways and your child will learn from you; such as quiet times, long walks, music, and slow, deep breathing when you feel anxious.
Show and Tell
If your child is old enough for thumbsucking to bother his teeth, he is old enough to understand why this habit harms his teeth. In front of a mirror let your child rub his index finger over the protruding upper teeth and put his fingertip into the gap between the upper and lower teeth during a bite. Imitate a buck teeth appearance (like Bugs Bunny), showing your child what can happen to thumbsucked teeth. Also, point out to your child that her sucked thumb does not look as nice as her other one.
Time your Intervention
With thumbsucking, wait to intervene until your child is in a receptive mood. Trying to step between thumb and mouth when your child is not in a cooperative mood is likely to result in a power struggle. Your interference will be regarded as a threat to her independence.
In the thumbsucker over four, try an adhesive bandage or tape on the thumb. A glove can remind and dissuade the nighttime thumbsucker. For the intensive night sucker who uses his thumb on his teeth like a crowbar, I’ve suggested a tongue-depressor taped to the thumb as a splint to keep the thumb from bending. If your child is older, talk with him about using a product that gets painted on the thumb and gives a stinging reminder when thumb meets lips. Encourage the child to paint it on himself – it’s his thumb and his habit.
Suggest a Competing Habit
With the child over four, you can use the principle of a competing habit. Show your child how to fold his arms, squeeze his thumb, or some other gesture that he enjoys instead of sucking his thumb. A trick that I’ve used successfully in my office is the game of hide the thumb: “As soon as you feel like sucking your thumb, wrap your fingers over your thumb into a fist.” If it’s a bedtime habit, suggest hiding the thumb under the pillow.
Negotiate a Milestone
If your child seems to be eager to meet goals you could give her a target date — “When you have your fourth birthday you can say goodbye to sucking your thumb!” Don’t hold your breath, though. On the big day, she may smile sweetly at you and say “I’ve changed my mind.” Remember to smile sweetly back.
Consult your Child’s Dentist
When your compulsive thumbsucker is four years of age, and her teeth are starting to reflect the harmful habit, a dentist can fit a palatal appliance that keeps the thumb from pushing on the teeth.
Relate with People Instead of the Thumb
If you see your child withdrawing from group play and interacting with his thumb instead of other children, consider the possibility that your child may need a social boost. Rather than attack the thumbsucking, delve into the underlying self-esteem problem that may hamper his social interaction. If you need some help in this department, consult a professional.
Once peer pressure begins, a child over the ages of seven may want to stop thumbsucking for her own reasons. Offer to help her design a chart that she can use on her own to mark down the number of times she sucks every day. She’ll be motivated to see the number get smaller and smaller. You do not have to watch her or remind her, or check up on her charting.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.