Many babies suck their thumbs or use a dummy for comfort. Sometimes, however, the habit becomes so well established that several years later, the child is reluctant to give it up. Most parents try to break the thumb sucking or dummy habit by a child’s second or third birthday, but often find that it can be a bit tough.
Dummy vs. Thumb
When it comes to dental health, there is virtually no difference between thumb sucking and dummy use. Both can, if continued once the teeth are established, cause the child’s teeth to protrude, setting them up for the need for orthodontic appliances later in childhood. Although a dummy can do the same damage to emerging teeth as thumb sucking, it is easier to break the dummy habit since at some point, you can choose to simply discard your child’s dummy.
Kicking the Habit
Most children will gradually outgrow their need to suck their thumb or use a dummy for comfort. By preschool, most children have given up the habit (at least during the day) without parental interference, though some children will still use sucking as a way to help them fall asleep at night or when they are upset.
For children who do not seem to be outgrowing the need for a dummy or thumb sucking by about three years old, there are a number of methods that can be helpful. Simple praise works well, so be sure to notice and compliment your child when they are not sucking their thumb or using their dummy. Children love to be “big” so point out how proud you are of your big boy or big girl. Some kids also respond very well to a reward system, such as a chart where a child can earn stickers for dummy-free days. Any type of positive encouragement is a good idea, just be sure that you don’t resort to harsh words or teasing. Not only are these practices disrespectful to your child, but they aren’t particularly effective, either.
Realistically, if your child is attached to the dummy and you believe that it is time for them to give it up, you merely have to toss their dummy collection into the bin and be done with it. Although your child will likely object, within a few days they will have gotten over it. For children who find comfort in thumb sucking, however, the solution will take a bit longer. There are topical products that you can apply to your child’s thumb which have an extremely unpleasant taste, discouraging your child from placing their thumb into their mouth. Used consistently, this can be a very effective way to break the habit.
Some parents find that encouraging the child to wear a bandage on their preferred thumb helps to serve as a reminder for them to take their thumb out of their mouth, especially since a great deal of thumb sucking in older children is done without conscious thought. If you notice that your child’s teeth are being affected by the behaviour and you have tried a variety of methods to help them stop, talk to a pediatric dentist. Dentists can install a device in the mouth that prevents the thumb from putting pressure on the palate or teeth. This device also makes it unpleasant to place the thumb into the mouth, so your child will likely remove his thumb.
Although many parents worry a great deal about thumb sucking in older children, almost all kids give up the habit by primary school. Typically, peer pressure alone will discourage such behaviours while your child is at school or playing with other children, so the habit will quickly fade away.