Reflections on Thumb-Sucking

I only had one thumb-sucker, so I can’t claim to be an expert. But here are some of my observations.

It was harder for my thumb-sucker to stop sucking his thumb than it was for my other child to give up his pacifier. I know there are kids who hold onto their pacifiers for years, but popping a needle in the gummy part or simply taking it away early enough (at least, during the daytime) can go a long way towards parting a baby and his friend.

You can’t get rid of your thumb.

For this reason, I suggest figuring out a plan of action early for your thumb-sucker. Are you willing to wait until he or she gives it up on their own? What if they don’t? It seems to me that babies who are really easy babies and suck their thumb may be easy for that reason–that their thumb really calms them down. If this is the case (i.e. the baby sucks his or her thumb out of the baby and young toddler year and into their second and third year), you may have trouble getting your child to stop. They are not just sucking their thumb for oral gratification or sucking needs, as all infants have, but they have a sensory (neural) tie to sucking–it really calms them down. It may help them organize their sensory input, find their own thoughts, disengage from something too exciting, or otherwise help them relax in a fundamental way. If this is the case, it is almost part of their make-up (NOT their identity or personality) and it may be harder for them to part with it because of the anxiety it will make them go through.

Therefore, if I had to do things over again, I would work with my son earlier to stop sucking his thumb. It got harder as time went on, and three years old was definitely too late. I think we started working with him about four months before his third birthday (because I wanted to try toilet-training him and I didn’t want to worry about hygiene so much). It was so hard. We went with the old “tape the thumb” trick, which worked fine. (And we took it off at night so he could sleep.) But he became anxious and insecure almost immediately–lots of crying spells, fears, moodiness, picky eating, etc. We weren’t trying to be mean, it just caused a lot of problems for him.

So I backed off one time and gave him a month or so of sucking again. But he was already insecure because the experience had warped him a bit… he kept thinking he wasn’t allowed to suck it. Then my husband started up with him again and kept with it until he learned. I felt bad about it, but it really was healthier for him to stop. Plus, it was clear that it wasn’t going to get any easier as time went on. It didn’t take too long for him to understand that he could suck it at night but not during the day… maybe another month or two. And for the record, he is three and a half now and still sucks it at night, and is not toilet-trained yet. And he does not have buck teeth!

So my bottom line is, the earlier the better. Make sure the child is over the teething stage, and don’t make a big deal about it until you are sure his oral-motor stage is over… whenever the child reliably stops putting things in their mouth when they are exploring their environment. Definitely sometime before two years old, he should be ready for some training. I would probably try around 15 or 16 months, when my other son pretty readily gave up his pacifier. But you know your own child. My reflections are just thinking out loud. First things first, one battle at a time, the most important ones first.

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