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Breaking The Thumb Sucking Habit

Thumb-sucking (or finger-sucking) is not usually a major problem in children and the majority will stop without any adult intervention by the time they are 4 years old. However there are some children who do need to stop sucking their thumb. By making thumb-sucking less satisfying (and less damaging) ScratchSleeves are a useful tool in breaking the habit, especially for little ones who suck their thumbs when they are sleeping.

Why do kids suck their thumbs?

All babies are born with a sucking reflex but in some babies the need is more pronounced than in others. Because of this, thumb-sucking in young babies is not preventable and over 80% will suck their thumb or a dummy. The pressure of the thumb on the roof of the mouth releases endorphins and serotonin which give a sense of well-being and relaxation. In many babies, this sense of well-being gained from early, reflexive thumb sucking develops into a self-soothing habit.

Most children will spontaneously stop thumb-sucking as they find other things to do and ways to get that sense of well-being, usually between 2 and 4 years old. However, around 15% of children over 4 still suck their thumbs, in most cases only when they are tired, bored or anxious.

When is thumb-sucking a problem?

Most experts recommend ignoring thumb-sucking in children under 4 years on the basis that they are likely to stop of their own accord anyway. In older children, occasional non-aggressive thumb-sucking is unlikely to have any lasting ill-effect meaning that there is no medical reason to stop.

However there are cases when helping a child to break their thumb-sucking habit is necessary:

  • When a child is frequent or aggressive thumb sucker and there is no sign of them stopping thumb sucking of their own accord before their permanent teeth come through – displaced milk teeth or a callus developing on the thumb are warning signs
  • When there are speech problems – the most common speech problems related to thumb sucking are mispronouncing the D and T sounds, lisping and tongue thrusting when talking
  • When a damaged thumb isn’t healing
  • When the child is also pulling out their hair
  • If a child is embarrassed by the habit or is being teased by other people
  • And obviously, if a child asks for help to stop
Little girl with dark hair and eyes, sucking her thumb and playing with hair hair with the other hand

How to break the thumb-sucking habit…

Take a step back and watch for when your child tends to suck their thumb. Are they bored in the car; watching the TV with nothing to do with their hands; in a situation where they are anxious or unsure of themselves; or falling asleep? These observations will often provide a strategy for dealing with the worst of problem.

How to stop toddlers sucking their thumb

With toddlers a gentle approach, which the child may not even notice, is usually more effective. Identify when your little one is most likely to suck their thumb and be ready to give them something else to do, preferably something that requires 2 hands: a fiddly toy to play with in front of the TV; videos on your phone to make car journeys less boring; a big cuddle and loads of attention if they are anxious.

If your little one sucks their thumb as they fall asleep, covering their hands with ScratchSleeves can be effective. They can still put their hands in their mouth and suck but the mitts limit the pressure they can put on the roof of their mouth. This reduces the endorphin and serotonin release caused by thumb-sucking and without the usual pleasure, the compulsion to suck will gradually fade.

Helping children break the thumb-sucking habit

Assuming your child is old enough to understand, it’s worth explaining to them why they need to stop sucking their thumb and involving them in choosing how to tackle the challenge. Without their buy-in you’re not going to get very far. If they need more persuasion, asking your dentist or speech therapist to explain why it’s a good idea can also help. You could also talk about the risk of dirt and germs getting into their mouths when they suck their thumb.

Make sure that you know when your child is most likely to suck their thumb. This will enable you to make breaking the habit as easy as possible by distracting them when they are most likely to suck. If they are ‘boredom-thumb-suckers’ have a list of interesting things to do, preferably things that need 2 hands or involve talking: have a sing-along in the car (try changing the words as you go along), find some Lego (eBay is great source) or give them your phone to play with. If they are ‘anxious- thumb-suckers’ try to pre-empt stressful situations and reduce the level of anxiety by talking about things in advance and with cuddles and reassurance on the day. For the times when you haven’t managed to avoid their thumb making its way into their mouth, come up with a fun way of reminding them they shouldn’t be sucking – a secret signal or a funky plaster around their preferred thumb.

ScratchSleeves are a useful tool to help kids break the thumb-sucking habit, especially for ‘sleepy-thumb-suckers’. The mitts remind the wearer that they shouldn’t be sucking without actually stopping them and they won’t come off during the night. By reducing the pressure of any sucking on the roof of the mouth both the feel-good factor and the potential damage are reduced. With a reduced feel-good effect, the impulse to suck will be reduced. For those children who stroke their face with their free fingers, the silky smooth mitts of ScratchSleeves make a great comforter as well.

Most importantly, heap praise your little one for not sucking their thumb (even if it was because you provided the distraction) and celebrate the small victories: take a photo of them asleep with no thumb in their mouth to show them or high-five them for not sucking when they aren’t expecting it. Sticker charts are great motivators – download our funky printable reward chart and stickers which also includes top tips on how to use reward charts effectively.

Top tips for breaking the thumb-sucking habit

  • Thumb-sucking has a physical feel-good factor that you’ll need to replace if you are going to successfully break the habit
  • Toddlers live in the moment and don’t have much concept of what they look like so won’t understand threats of crooked teeth when they are older
  • A team effort is bound to be more successful – get the whole family to join in and make breaking the thumb-sucking habit fun
  • Nagging and criticism will made a child uneasy and even more likely to suck their thumb
  • As children use thumb-sucking as a way to relieve stress, picking a non-stressful time to break the habit is a good plan.
  • As a rule of thumb, it takes 21 days to break a habit.

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