Thumb Sucking/Pacifiers

Thumb Sucking/Pacifiers

            It’s interesting to see how differently people react to children sucking their thumbs and using pacifiers. Children naturally suck their thumbs –often from time they have enough coordination to get their thumb to their mouth. This is a human reflex that babies learn to associate with the pleasure and calming of being fed and held. No wonder it is such a powerful habit that often continues through childhood. Some children have learned to use a pacifier in the same way.
            It is a cultural choice that a particular society makes as to when a child should stop this behavior. For some families, thumb-sucking is encouraged and it is not considered a problem for older children to still suck their thumbs or use a pacifier. In other cultures and families, children are expected to stop such behavior as a toddler. Some parents encourage using a pacifier in order to prevent dental problems from thumb-sucking which can happen if a child sucks very forcefully.

            Depending on the age of the child, you might decide that the thumb-sucking is helpful to calm the child and does not interfere with learning. For example, many of us would accept a preschool child sucking his thumb at naptime, or even a 1st grader quietly sucking her thumb during a movie. At the same time we might feel that thumb-sucking during regular classroom activities interferes with the learning opportunities. It might also be helpful to have a discussion with family members to see how they feel about the thumb-sucking.
            If you eventually decide that you’d like to help the child reduce this behavior, you can use the same techniques that help break any habit. This means helping the child find other ways to self-soothe and make different habits. You can’t just stop the thumb-sucking or pacifier without replacing it with other self-soothing behavior. Because thumb-sucking is so sensory, a cuddly blanket or cloth can be a logical choice. Gradually have the child use the cloth whenever she might suck her thumb or use a pacifier, then gradually encourage the child to stop the thumb-sucking (or pacifier) and use the cloth instead. Do not make demands, because the fear of having to give up the habit will cause more stress and the child will need the thumb-sucking more.
         Since thumb-sucking is a way of coping with anxiety and calming oneself, you can also try to figure out what triggers the need for this self-soothing. Can you help the reduce the stress the child is experiencing? You can also teach the child other relaxation exercises such as breathing or self-talk. Don’t be punitive. Remedies such as bitter ointments or gloves generally do not work because they cause more stress and don’t offer the child a replacement for the soothing they achieved from thumb-sucking.
           Thumb-Sucking Strategies:
·         Decide whether thumb-sucking is really a problem or not. Many children stop the behavior on their own when they get older.
·         Choose a replacement behavior for the thumb-sucking such as soothing cloth.
·         Gradually replace the thumb-sucking with the other behavior.
·         Teach the child self-soothing techniques.
·         Don’t focus too much attention on the behavior because it will increase stress and lead to more attachment to thumb-sucking.

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