A Therapists Guide to Fix the Developmental Delay of Baby Milestones

Let’s be honest about thumb-sucking. It helps calm a baby or young child.

 In my mind, it is not much different than sucking on a binky – which my son did until he was almost 4. My justification for not intervening was that it soothed him and helped him to self-calm. I thought that was more important than the social benefit of doing without a binky. As a matter of fact, I have very funny photos of my son skiing down a snowy slope with a binky in his mouth and the clasp hanging down.

I think children who don’t have a good mechanism for self-calming have more problems dealing with frustration than those who do.

However, there comes a time when thumb-sucking and binkies are no longer acceptable, and the bad outweighs the good. Most experts suggest ignoring the habit until the child reaches kindergarten.

Thumb sucking is a natural urge during baby development. The sucking instinct starts before a baby is born. The instinct normally starts to fade around six months of age, but the habit continues with many babies because it helps them to feel happy and secure. As the baby gets older and learns better ways to cope, the habit will disappear on its own. Most children stop thumb sucking without intervention between the ages of three and six. It becomes a problem if it persists past the age of six, or the child develops speech or dental problems.

On-going thumb sucking for prolonged periods can cause the teeth to become misaligned, push the front teeth forward or cause a malformation of the roof of the mouth.

 It can lead to a lisp, or mispronunciation of certain letters such as T’s and D’s. It can also result in tongue thrust while speaking. Thumb sucking interferes with social skill development. Children who depend on the habit to soothe themselves tend to avoid learning better coping mechanisms. Plus, they run the risk of being teased by children who don’t thumb suck. Children can be mean to other children regarding this issue.

In terms of milestone development, thumb sucking can be a problem as well.

Most pediatricians and others don’t mention this issue, but it can be significant. While your child is sucking her thumb, she is unable to use both hands. Motor milestones such as crawling can be affected. Fine motor skills and self-care skills can get delayed. I recall working with a baby who would start thumb-sucking in the middle of movement transitions and actually fall over. Then he would just lie on the floor where he landed and start sucking away. Although it looked endearing, it really was a huge problem. He decided to scoot instead of crawling because it allowed him to suck and scoot at the same time. When his mom and I decided to push him a little, he became more determined to suck on his thumb.

The case described above is not that common, but it highlights how much of a problem thumb-sucking can be. Although it is recommended to wait until the child is at least four or five before you take serious action, it is good to try to give your child alternative methods to self calm as early as possible.

When is it time to force the issue? Up until age four, most experts discourage a serious effort to break the habit.

 Once the child is four and is thumb sucking frequently and with intensity, you should take measures to stop it. If they have developed any dental or speech problems, it needs to be stopped. Thumb sucking along with hair pulling is a red flag. If your child is being teased or if she asks for help to stop, you need to help.

There is some speculation that attempts to stop the habit with an uncooperative child are not productive. Other specialists recommend trying to break the habit even if your child insists on persevering. I believe it is up to the individual to assess their child’s maturity and ability to cope, and to consider the pros and cons of enforced intervention. There are many ways to help your child with the weaning process. Below are some suggestions.

• Early on, replace thumb sucking with a binky. There is evidence that children stop using a binky sooner and more easily than they stop thumb sucking. There are also fewer physical problems related to binkies. While binky use can possibly lead to ear infections, it does not normally interfere in achieving milestones, nor does it cause speech and dental problems.

• Have your child fitted with an oral device which discourages the habit. The child will not enjoy thumb sucking with the device in place.

• Use a thumb device to prevent the child from sucking. It is a non-toxic cover for the thumb which is held in place by straps. A rule of thumb (lol) is to use the device until your child goes 24 hours without attempting to suck.

• Develop a good behavior modification program. A reward system can be incentive for an older child (ages 5 and up).

• Talk to your child and get her involved in her own treatment. Discuss ways which she agrees will help break the habit.

• Cover the thumb with a glove or mitten. Many of my clients opted to use socks held by coated rubber bands on their baby’s hands. It is a great solution for infants. Just be sure that the elastic band does not compromise circulation. This helps at bedtime when the instinct to suck is stronger.

• Use a product such as Thum. This type of product is applied to the nail and is bitter tasting. Some parents use Quinine.

• Try a “thumb sucking schedule” which permits the habit at specific times and for a specified amount of time. Use a timer to notify your child that the session has ended. Reduce frequency gradually until the habit is eliminated.

• Find activities to distract your child. Make sure that the activity engages both hands so the child can’t suck.

• Never criticize or scold your child. Negative reactions from you can shame your child and result in guilt and emotional problems. Remember, thumb sucking is a natural occurrence. Your child needs positive reinforcement and needs to feel good about the stopping process. Otherwise, she may resist.

• Praise your child when you see that she is not sucking her thumb.

• Do not attempt to break the habit during periods of emotional turmoil. Any kind of change such as starting in a new school, gaining or losing a pet, family problems, etc., can be traumatic. It is best to wait until daily events are normal.

I think that thumb sucking bothers the parents more than the child. For some children, it is important to keep the habit until they are past the socially-acceptable stage. In those cases, I recommend allowing the child to suck her thumb during “private time”. Allow her to have a place and a time that you agree is acceptable, such as in her room and without an audience. As my pediatrician reminded me when my son was late with toileting, “no one goes to college in a diaper”. Nor do they suck their thumb by the time they reach college age. This habit will pass eventually. If your child demonstrates no progress whatsoever with your attempts, it may be necessary to see a therapist. But I believe that if you work together with your child in a positive and cooperative manner, you will be able to end thumb sucking within a reasonable period of time.

Stock Photos from 123RF

One Response to “How to break the thumb sucking habit”

  1. Andrea says:

    The reason it is hard to stop thumb sucking with all the negative tools like bitter polish is because thumb sucking is such a comforting thing to a child and they will not want to give it up when you put bitter polish (which has chemicals in it) or shameful thumb guards on. Try the positive approach…there is a fun thing for children called “Thumbuddy To Love” and it comes with a thumb puppet/story book with special tips on how to use it. Teaches kids in a fun and positive way to let go of something so comforting. Worked for my kids. Here is the info: You can get it at thumbuddytolove dot com.
    The sooner the better because prolonged thumb sucking can lead to buck teeth.

    Stop Thumb Sucking

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