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Thumb Sucking Success Story

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Success Stories For Overcoming Thumb Sucking

Lots of people ask me about thumb sucking and how to break their children of this habit.  After all, you can throw a pacifier out, but a thumb…not so easy.

Why they do it:
The first thing to know about this behaviour is that it serves the child by being a self-soothing behaviour, and is not a misbehaviour per se.

What not to do:
You can’t "make" a child stop sucking their thumb. Change will only occur when the child is motivated to stop. It is not okay to make them feel bad about thumb sucking by calling them a baby or by forcing them to wear quinine in hopes of making them want to stop sucking. It won’t work and they will feel that much worse.   

What to do instead:
Most children will abandon this behaviour with time. Wait it out, be patient. Peer pressure can kick in when they start school and daytime thumb sucking will end. Somewhere along the line they’ll become very motivated to stop. Maybe the fear of their teeth shifting too far out of alignment will motivate them, but you have years before that becomes a real issue.  If that becomes the case, have your doctor or dentist inform and educate your child themselves. Children listen to doctors and dentist better than to their parents.   

Creative Next Steps:
Once the child has announced their desire to break their thumb sucking habit, then you can get creative with ideas to help them reach their goal. Let them own this problem, let them own their success in breaking the habit too.  I was so warmed by the success story of a friend of mine, that I asked her to write about it so I could share it with others.  You can really feel the sense of empowerment little 7 year old Riley felt. 

Take minute and hear how well this can be handled:

Today my daughter went for her first manicure.  Really.  She is aged 7.  Crazy you say.  Maybe.  We were celebrating a huge milestone.  Having a thumb nail to manicure for the first time in 7 years.  You see my daughter has sucked her thumb since before birth.  She wasn’t born with her thumb in her mouth, but close.  She began her thumb sucking within a few weeks of birth, dragging her flat hand across her face 10, 15 times until the thumb hit her mouth.  In the thumb popped. 

We tried to minimize the thumb sucking at an early age by giving her a soother.  She just spit it out and popped in her thumb.  She sucked her thumb to put her to sleep, to comfort herself in the middle of the night, when she was tired, scared, or feeling cuddly.

As parents we were fairly philosophical.  Our thinking was that she wouldn’t be sucking her thumb on her first date so we did not worry.  As she got older we had a few conversations about stopping especially after one friend told her she would have bunny teeth.  However, there was really no willpower on her part.  The dentist tried to show her pictures of bad, bucked teeth – still that provided no motivation.

At our daughters last dental visit we were referred to an orthodontist.  Riley’s teeth were starting to push outward and the dentist wanted to be preventative.  We agreed to the appointment thinking that it would be good to get an understanding of just how much her thumb sucking was affecting her bite. 

We were blessed to have found an orthodontist who understood human behaviour.  He was a friendly man, near retirement.  He took pictures of Riley’s teeth and measured the gap between the front and back.  Her front teeth were 8 mm forward, her back teeth 3 mm backwards.  Then the orthodontist sat down and spoke to Riley about her teeth (he did not address his comments to us).  He explained that her thumb sucking was pushing her front teeth forward and her back teeth back, creating a gap.  He said overtime this would create problems and she would most likely need braces when she got older.  He continued explaining how sucking her thumb was a habit and that habits were really hard to break.  He had some ideas to help her and wondered if Riley would be willing to try them.  He told her that habits took 21 days to break.  He suggested that she get herself some band aids to put on her thumb after dinner to help remind her brain that she did not want to suck her thumb.  After all, he said, Riley already did not suck her thumb during the day, so her brain knew how not to.  The band aid was to be a reminder to her brain not to suck her thumb.   He said she needed to get a calendar and write the word NO on it for every day she did not suck her thumb.  He explained it was okay if she forgot one day and sucked her thumb.  He explained that she would need to try again.  Finally, he gave her his business card with the date January 11th and the time of 4:30 p.m. on it.  He asked Riley to call him on this date at this time to talk about how it was going.  He promised that he would not ask any tough questions.  He was really interesting in how she was doing. 

Riley came home from the orthodontist’s office excited about trying to break her thumb sucking habit.  The first 5 days were difficult.  On the first night Riley was really determined.  During the day she said her thumb felt funny dry and she would make a fist and lick the base of her thumb to keep it wet.  At night we rubbed her back and tried to support her efforts by distracting her.  She cried and cried but did not want to suck her thumb.   She put her hand under her pillow to keep it away.  On the first night she fell asleep after an hour and a half.  The second night it was much the same.  More tears.  She got really mad at us for letting her suck her thumb.  She wished she was dead and she wished she had never started sucking her thumb.  Rather than get upset by these comments we realized that she was in a process and this anger was a part of this process.  Bedtime was a very labour intense period for us as parents for the first 5 nights.  Her dad shared his story of quitting smoking and how difficult if was.  He told her of the things he did to keep busy instead of smoke- like taking up hobbies.  He told her that he wasn’t successful at first and he had to try again.

Then all of a sudden it got easier.  Riley would get up every day and mark a no on the calendar.  After the first week she said it was now easy to go to sleep without sucking her thumb.  Riley was fortunate that her habit was easily broken after the first week.  Despite the ease of getting to sleep after the first week, Riley continued to mark NO on the calendar.  We did not provide any other incentives. 

Riley’s grandparents came down on day 5 and offered some money for each day she did not suck her thumb.  It was nice for Riley but it did not really act as an incentive- putting a NO on the calendar was reward enough it seemed.

As I type this it is almost January 11th, 2005.  Riley continues to be free of thumb sucking even while falling asleep in the car.  I think as parents it was hard to watch our child tackle such a difficult task at such a young age.  The struggle she experienced  was real and heart wrenching.  I think that this experience taught us that as parents our role was to be supportive and provide a safe place to tackle this issue, but the hard work had to come from her, the desire had to be hers.  I think this realization has kept our relationship with our daughter positive.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

More about Alyson

2 Responses to “Thumb Sucking Success Story”

  1. Erin MacIntyre

    Thank you for the article. I have a feeling that my oldest daughter, about to turn three, will someday be having a similar struggle. She loves her thumb and I know she’ll have a hard time giving it up. Glad to see patience and support are a solution!

  2. Silviu

    Quinine stopped me and two of my cousins from thimbsuckkng, but you know…just wait it out. Totally better than a real, practical solution


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