Q. Our 5-year-old daughter is starting kindergarten in the fall and still sucks her thumb. I’m worried she’ll get teased at school about it. What’s the best method to get her to stop over the summer?
Babies are born with a natural urge to suck as a way of self-soothing. Thumb sucking is common and sometimes begins while a baby is still in the womb. Most children stop sucking their thumbs without intervention as they develop other coping skills – usually by age 3.
When children continue sucking their thumbs beyond age 3, dental problems can develop. Parents are encouraged to intervene.
Thumb sucking can be a difficult habit to break, and it’s important for parents not to get frustrated. Because many children soothe themselves to sleep by thumb sucking, parents may want to start the process by eliminating daytime thumb sucking.
The best initial intervention is to introduce a replacement behavior or distraction. In a younger child this may mean placing a toy in her hand to distract her when she starts sucking her thumb during play. An older child can be taught to squeeze her thumb when she has the urge to put it in her mouth. Positive praise for not sucking is more effective than punishment.
Some children suck their thumbs without even realizing what they are doing. Aversion techniques such as bitter-tasting nail polish or thumb guards are useful for older children who are motivated to quit and just need a reminder. Some people, however, view these techniques as cruel. If thumb sucking is causing dental problems, some dentists may recommend a dental device on the upper palate to break the habit more definitively.
Dr. Patt is president of the Charlotte Pediatric Society. Email questions to email@example.com; put “pediatrician” in subject line.
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