Some children have sucked their thumb from the time they were in the womb, and we all would agree that there is nothing as cute as a tiny newborn reaching for their thumb! Babies have a very natural rooting and sucking reflex that encourages comfort, security and a way of self-soothing themselves - particularly when they are upset, tired or using it as a means to go asleep.
A baby who sucks their thumb is really no different to the baby who seeks a soother. The difference is the thumb is attached, and so it can be a lot trickier to break the habit. Many children can stop during the toddler years, and naturally so - although it’s not often as easy as that when it’s a conscious change and when our children pass a certain age.
Is there a right time?
As our children get older - and although they may find a great comfort in sucking their thumb - there are often other reasons why it’s necessary to break the habit.
Ultimately, you know your child best and if it’s the change you want to make at the right time. For majority of children, it’s not a big concern until when the baby teeth go and the adult ones arrive – so either it may affect the roof of the child’s mouth or how their teeth line up.
Another part to consider is; are you, the parent ready, for them to finish? I ask this question as, being in this situation with my own son, I knew I had to take responsibility in supporting him. Thumbsucking was the only comfort he found to help him fall asleep when he was upset or simply when winding down after a busy day, I found it tough knowing that once the decision was made, he would no longer have that. The fact that he was my eldest; my baby boy was no more! I could see that it was going to be hard for him, but with a plan in place and encouragement all round, there was no turning back – we were in it together!
For any parent who finds themselves in a situation where they know it’s time to stop thumb-sucking, then I would like to recommend a few steps in breaking the love for the thumb, while also looking at other ways that will encourage self-soothing.
Be open – have a little chat with your child
Once your child has their permanent teeth, at age 4-6, this is often a great opportunity to take a trip to your local dentist, so your child can experience what it’s like to sit on the chair and to have their teeth checked out. It can often help when the suggestion of breaking the habit comes from another person other than their parent! At this stage, they are well and truly old enough to have that chat about the importance of keeping their teeth in good shape. Like our dentist put it, take the pressure off, invest the time and begin the process during a holiday period when you may foresee some sleepless nights. There is more chance of success if your child is involved in the plan while having their say on how you’re going to do it.
Seek an alternative comfort
If your child sucks their thumb for sleep, it can often help to look at alternative ways to settle them. Do they have a special teddy or blanket they use? Be prepared if it takes them longer to settle - they initially may look to fall asleep with you in your bed. No matter how old they are, don’t under estimate the comfort of our smell and presence - particularly at the beginning of a new transition time. Don’t worry if you feel you are creating another habit: it’s just for the moment. My boy literally slept in my arms on the first night. We didn’t get a lot of sleep, but he mastered not using his thumb to fall asleep for the first time ever.
I know it’s not for everyone, but wrapping the thumb in a plaster and brushing it with an unpleasant nail biting solution can be really effective. It does what it says on the tin! The more the child places it in the mouth, the more horrible it tastes, and over a period of days the habit starts to break. Even agreeing with your child that this is for the first week or two for both day and night will allow them be part of the decision-making. Personally, this was our saving grace!
A little reward can go a long way!
Like many parenting scenarios, introducing change can take time but, once achieved, deserves the ultimate reward – whether it’s staying in their own bed, toilet training or to stop sucking their thumb. Encouraging their best efforts along the way will make a big difference, and allowing your child to choose a special treat (within reason) makes their goal all the more exciting. Once their goal is reached, nothing compares to that sense of achievement.
Breaking the habit of thumbsucking can be a very difficult thing to do. If your child is in crèche or school, talk to their key carer or teacher and ask them for support so that there is consistency for your child. Often it’s when a child spends the days with their peers in school that you see them become more conscious, and so they will stop the daytime sucking. Whatever you do, avoid putting too much pressure on the situation, as this can make it into a very different experience for everyone. Trust that your child can do it with your support, and wait it out!
Aoife Lee, Parent Coach for Giraffe Childcare