Sucking Thumbs and Pesky Pacifiers

Remember how cute it was when your daughter sucked her thumb when she was first born? What about the first time you gave your four-month-old son a pacifier; remember how he quieted right down almost instantly? What was once an endearing habit that could warm your heart has now turned into an apparently troublesome menace threatening the dental health of your toddler. But is it really all that bad?

The Comfort Zone
A child’s desire to suck their thumb often begins long before you can do anything about it. In the womb, many babies turn to their thumb as a source of comfort. Once born, the habit continues either with their thumb or a pacifier. Since thumb sucking and pacifier use can be habit forming, it is no surprise that your toddler continues to crave these sources of reassurance during their troubling times. Or when they are hungry, bored, cranky, tired, not feeling well…

Since your toddler receives so much consolation from the pacifier or thumb, is it really necessary to put an end to this habit? Well, that depends. If your toddler only occasionally seeks out their thumb for comfort, then you probably don’t have much to worry about. They will likely put an end to their habit themselves. Once they start school and spend more time with other children, they will likely want to get rid of their pacifier and quit their thumb sucking days themselves. After all, they don’t want to look like a baby to their friends. But what if your child is a regular sucker?

When It’s Time
The American Dental Association states that thumb sucking isn’t worrisome behavior prior to the time when the permanent teeth come in. Since most children stop sucking their thumb or using their pacifier by the age of three or four, there is little damage to be done to the baby teeth that won’t be corrected when the permanent teeth come in. However, what can be problematic is the child who vigorously sucks her thumb.

The more intensely your toddler sucks away at their finger or pacifier, the greater the chance of there being dental problems. If you notice that you child’s baby teeth are becoming misshapen, then it is time to take action and help your youngster break their habit.

Kicking the Habit
There are many different techniques that parents have used in the past to help their toddler stop using a pacifier or sucking their thumb. Many recommend taking charge of the situation before your child is old enough to have a say in the matter. If your one-year-old is still using a pacifier, simply get rid of it or cut back gradually on the times when they can use their pacifier.

However, others say it is better to allow your toddler to be involved in the decision. This gives your toddler the ability to assert their independence, which they love to do when they are two-years-old. Your toddler is also more likely to feel comfortable about giving up the habit if they have a say in it.

Your Best Bets
Avoid using pressure tactics to force your toddler to quit. Often, this technique does not work. It may even cause your toddler to increasingly partake in their thumb sucking or pacifier use in order to comfort themselves when they feel they have disappointed you. Instead, use positive verbal encouragement when you notice them not giving in to their oral habit. Saying, “I am so proud of my big girl! You didn’t suck your thumb at all while watching that cartoon…” can help do the trick.

Paying attention to when your toddler sucks their thumb may also help you find ways to break their habit. Does your son use his pacifier when he’s tired? Then change his bedtime or allow him to sleep longer during his naps. Does your daughter suck her thumb when she’s bored? Then break out some crayons and paper to put an end to that boredom.

To help promote proper verbal development, don’t allow your toddler to get into the habit of pointing and grunting instead of speaking when they have their thumb or pacifier in their mouth. Insist that they must remove the object from their mouth when they would like to say something.

Some parents have tried using rubber bands to pinch their child’s arm; applied foul-tasting polishes to their child’s nails; used gloves or socks to cover their toddlers hands and even tying their child’s hands down to prevent them from sucking their thumb. While these are likely to be effective, habit-ending methods in the short-term, they do little for your toddler’s long-term resistance. Once the rubber band, gloves, or polish come off, your toddler’s thumb will be right back in her mouth again to soothe her after her horrific experience with this strange type of punishment.

If you have tried everything you can think of and still your toddler insists on comforting herself orally, bring the issue up at your next appointment with your toddler’s pediatrician or dentist. Aside from the advice that they can offer you, they can also talk with your toddler. And sometimes all it takes is for the dentist to say “You’re going to have crooked teeth if you keep using a pacifier” to get your toddler to kick the habit without a second thought.