Q&A: Four Year Old Won’t Stop Thumb Sucking

Tamara GuoBehavior, Challenging Behavior

blockquote_bgOur four-year old has his thumb in his mouth most of his waking hours. We’ve tried talking it over with him, the Thumb Buddy, books and stories about thumb sucking. His dentist talked to him about it approximately six months ago, too. None of these things have worked. We’re open to getting a professional evaluation but don’t know where to start. Can you help? Thank you.
I am not aware of any professional evaluations or help for thumb suckers. Developmentally most children are able to find another way to self-soothe by age 5 and drastically decrease or stop their thumb sucking. It sounds like you have been trying all the obvious suggestions and really talking to him about it, but not demanding he stop or punishing him for it, is probably the best thing to do daily with him. If he puts other non-food items into his mouth, that could indicate a sensory issue, and you could seek the advice of a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing. But, if it’s just the thumb sucking, then I’d continue to do what you are doing and review this advice from WebMD:
“This is a self-soothing activity,” family psychologist Jenn Berman says. “It is important to remember that you will not have a child who is going off to college sucking his thumb. It will eventually come to an end.”

Adults don’t realize how anxiety-provoking growing up is for children, and sucking their thumbs or fingers is a soothing activity that can help reduce their anxiety, Berman says. So if your child is approaching preschool and still sucking away, here’s how to handle it correctly:

  1. DO try to limit the time that your child sucks his thumb to his bedroom or in the house, not in public, Berman says. Explain to him that this is a bed activity during nap time and at night.
  2. DON’T turn it into a confrontation. “Don’t tell your child, ‘You cannot suck your thumb anymore,'” Anderson says. “Try to recognize him and praise him when he’s not sucking his thumb instead of criticizing when he is.”
  3. DO talk to your child about her thumb sucking or finger sucking. “Help your child understand that when she is ready to stop, you will be there to help,” Berman says. “She will eventually come to you and tell you, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to suck my thumb anymore,’ because you’ve empowered her to get there.”
  4. DON’T prohibit your child if he tries to suck his thumb or fingers after being hurt or injured. “He needs to be in his comfort zone, and by not letting him go there, you’re only traumatizing him more,” Berman says.
  5. DO practice self-awareness with your child. “When your child is sucking his thumb, ask him, ‘Do you know you are sucking your thumb now?'” Hayes says. “If he says no, help him recognize that, and find another way to soothe him if he needs it, like a blanket or stuffed animal.”
  6. DON’T use the nasty-tasting stuff that is marketed to stop thumb sucking and finger sucking. “It’s just cruel,” Berman says. “It’s pulling the rug out from under your child and that’s not fair.”
  7. DO come up with creative ways to help your child understand that he is growing up and one day won’t suck his thumb anymore. “Ask your child, ‘Do you think Bob the Builder sucks his thumb?'” Hayes says. “Then they’ll think about it, and start to process whether they want to be sucking their thumbs anymore.”
  8. DON’T try a glove or a mitten on the hand as a quick-fix to thumb or finger sucking. “This will just frustrate them and cause more anxiety,” Anderson says. “Likely, they’re old enough to just take it off, and as a result, they’ll just want to suck more.”
  9. DO remember that a child will grow out of the need for thumb sucking or finger sucking when he’s good and ready. “While parents may not like it, it’s best left alone,” Berman says. “Kids will eventually give it up.”
These are a few articles on our website about Oral Fixation: