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Thumb Sucking Alternatives – Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My three-year-old sucks her thumb when she goes to sleep, and occasionally just to calm herself. We are going out to the playground more now and I noticed she does it when anyone approaches her.

Well-meaning family members are advising me to make her stop to prevent buck teeth. But other than coating her thumb with something that tastes terrible, they’re not giving me any ideas.

Time to Quit

Dear TtQ,

Thumb sucking and finger sucking are very common self-soothing techniques used by babies and young children. No permanent harm is done before the permanent teeth start making their appearance. Many children stop on their own as they learn other ways of coping with stress. Typically by the age of four, a child is concerned about how she appears to her friends. Anything that they might consider as “babyish” is generally discarded. If a child persists in thumb sucking past her fourth birthday, she quickly learns not to do it in front of the peer group. 

Redirect the Tension

Thumb sucking which mimics chewing motions is actually good for the brain. It obviously reduces the brain’s stress response which is why your little one has been doing it all her life. Stress relief is one reason people (old enough not to swallow it) chew gum, or worse, mismanage food.

So we don’t want to take away chewing altogether, just redirect it from her thumb. Recent research suggests that chewing also stimulates spatial memory function and other abilities important for learning. In fact crunchy food is now considered important for preventing dementia in old age. To satisfy your daughter’s natural need to chew, try adding more crunchy foods during the day – carrots, whole grain pretzels – and especially before she gets ready for bed.

Other alternatives to sucking her thumb could be introduced to your daughter at bedtime. Consider a pacifier. The advantage of a pacifier is that it’s not a part of her body and therefore won’t suffer chafing, can be easily sanitized in the dishwasher (while a second pacifier is in use), and its access can be controlled by you.

If a pacifier seems too babyish, you might introduce other options for satisfying mouth tension. Since around 2007 parents have been able to purchase chew necklaces specifically designed for children older than infancy for helping to relieve physical tension in the jaw. A chewy can be used at bedtime just like a pacifier.

It’s possible that your daughter’s stress relief could be directed to her thumb rather than her mouth. She’s old enough not to eat play dough, which can provide a nice workout and sensory stimulation for her thumbs. A variety of sensory play materials are popular with three-year-olds, including finger paint, sand, water, and just crunching dry leaves.  

Reduce Stress

You’ve pinpointed two of your daughter’s stress triggers – transitioning to sleep and being approached by a stranger.

It is very important to have a soothing routine at bedtime. This is the time of day when your little one has to let go of your presence, assured that she’s still connected to you while she’s sleeping. Usually it takes at least an hour to make your way through bath (or at least washing her face), pajamas, teeth brushing, reading picture books together, lullabies, and back tickles. The lowered volume and slowed pace of your voice let her know that all is well in her world. It might help to start earlier to lengthen this routine – adding more story reading, for example – to give her lots of one-on-one attention so she can securely drift off.  

To reduce your child’s stress when at the playground you can work on making friends out of the strangers. Now that the under fives are starting to get vaccinated, it’s a good time to widen your social bubble. If you go to the same playground at the same time of the day or week, you’re sure to begin recognizing other regulars. Introduce yourself to other moms. Learn the children’s names. Stay close to minimize any conflict between the children.

Talk About It

Let your daughter know that you’re going to help her to not suck her thumb any more. She might not agree with you that a chafed thumb, buck teeth, nor germs need to be avoided. However, children generally trust that parents’ love sometimes includes insisting on doing things that a child would rather not do. (Getting her Covid-19 vaccine is a good example.) Try to time your anti-thumb sucking campaign for when she’s not also dealing with other big challenges, such as toilet mastery, starting preschool, or accepting a new role as big sister.

Talk with your daughter about the people at the playground as you’re learning their names, etc. and remind her about them before you go again. As she watches your friendly approach to people outside the family she will gain trust that human beings are a positive part of the world.

Explain how you’re going to try some new things such as crunchy crackers after dinner and a chew necklace at bedtime to take the place of thumb sucking. Let her know that bedtime can be hard but you’re adding time for two more books, or three more lullabies, or a new pillow, or whatever, to make sure that she’s all cozy and comfy. Ask her to help evaluate whether these alternatives are adequate and make adjustments accordingly.

And congratulate her in the morning when her thumb isn’t in her mouth.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Dr. Wood is presenting a three-part parenting series on guiding the behavior of young children on Monday evenings, July 11-25, 7-9 pm, on Zoom. Childcare professionals can earn MSDE-approved certificates for participating.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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