Still thumb-sucking

How to help your child give up the digit

Meg Hufnagel describes her six-year-old son, Tyson, as a “cheerfully addicted thumb-sucker, despite everything we have tried.” Tyson sucks his thumb enough that he has developed a tongue thrust that is affecting his speech, and will soon be seeing a speech-language pathologist. “Perhaps we’ll learn something there that will help,” says Hufnagel.

Bev Ryder’s* seven-year-old, Evan, also sucks his thumb, but his mom is not concerned. “His teeth are fine,” she explains, “and he only sucks his thumb if he has a piece of his special blanket, usually in the morning or evening. It comforts him and doesn’t cause any problems, so I’m not in a rush to have him stop.”

Does thumb-sucking into the school years cause problems? Maybe. Teasing and bite and speech problems are all possible, but more likely when the thumb is under heavy usage.

About 10 to 15 percent of kids suck their thumb at age four, says Winnipeg paediatrician Janet Grabowski. Many of these will simply outgrow the habit by about age six. But for those who don’t, quitting is not easy.

“It’s a habit,” says Grabowski, “a subconscious thing they do. And it’s a security blanket of sorts.” To make matters worse, by now there may be a power struggle going on with parents who are pushing them to stop.

*Name changed by request

Should parents, then, even try to encourage children to stop, or should they just wait and hope the child outgrows it? While Grabowski feels that younger children should be left to outgrow it on their own, she says that the older children get, the more difficult it is for them to stop. “When you’re getting into age seven and eight, you may need some help from someone like a psychologist, who can set up a behaviour modification plan, because it’s become rather intractable.”

Before going that route, Grabowski suggests these strategies:

Help your child deal with any insecure feelings. Address things he might be concerned or worried about — a new school, for example.

Keep her hands busy. “If you’ve got something in your hands, you can’t suck your thumb,” says Grabowski. Try construction toys, drawing, cards and puzzles.

Invoke germs. “Kids are learning at a much earlier age about germs and handwashing, and it’s reasonable to explain that thumbs shouldn’t be going into their mouths because they might be carrying germs.”

You can gently point out that as children get older, they don’t suck their thumbs anymore. Grabowski cautions this should not be done in a humiliating way, but just to plant the idea that your child will outgrow the habit.

Power struggles You can’t force a determined child not to suck his thumb, so don’t even try. You want to have the role of coach and supporter — more like you would for a buddy trying to quit smoking.

Harshness “You don’t want kids feeling bad about themselves for this,” says Grabowski.

Bad-tasting deterrents In Grabowski’s experience, they rarely work. “The kids suck it off and keep going.”

Sometimes, good timing and a stroke of inspiration come together to give a child who’s ready to quit exactly the help she needs. Leanne Arnott’s seven-year-old daughter, Amy, liked to suck on two of her fingers at night. Arnott took her three daughters for a special girly weekend in Seattle. She set up a “spa” in the hotel room bathroom, including manicure, but told Amy that she couldn’t paint her fingernails because it would be bad for her to suck on the nail polish. “She decided right then and there to stop, so she could have pretty polished nails.” The first night, says Arnott, “was a bit rough, but she didn’t complain.” Amy hasn’t sucked her fingers since.