Peaceful Parenting: Thumb Sucking
Dear Dr. Markel,
I was wondering your opinion on thumb sucking. My son is 7. He sucks his thumb a lot, except never at school. I feel he doesn’t “need” to, but that it’s more of a habit. His brothers are starting to really be annoyed at the sound of it. We have to tell him he can’t when we are all playing a game or watching a movie together. I don’t want it to turn into a negative thing. We have a happy, well balanced, non-stressful house with a lot of love. I know it helps some kids cope with their environment. Does he still “need” it or can we try to help him quit? Thanks for your help.
— Virginia Christi of Colrain, MA
Congratulations on providing the most important ingredient for your children’s health and well-being, a peaceful home in a loving family.
While, in general, habits or “loveys” provide comfort and security (adults have their own forms of tension-relieving behaviors), it is true that the thumb sucking has a few negative consequences for your son. First, the permanent teeth will in fact be positioned improperly if the thumb sucking is consistent. Also, his brothers are getting annoyed about the effect on them of listening to the sounds, and that, in turn, is a source of anxiety for your son (perhaps creating a cycle of discomfort and then relieving that discomfort with thumb sucking. Calling attention to the habit may have the negative effect of intensifying it).
Habits are difficult to break, for anybody, as they are by definition established patterns of behavior. Your son associates certain activities with thumb sucking and those are the times when he does it. As well, other situations are associated with “not thumb sucking” and it is clear therefore that he is certainly capable of giving it up, given the right circumstances. That said, one of the most important things to remember is that children respond to praise more readily than criticism (the same is actually true, again, for adults), so praising your son when he is not sucking his thumb is a good starting point.
Also, your child is old enough to be reasoned with, and to get into the act of decision making about stopping the thumb sucking. He is mature enough to understand why this habit harms his teeth and disrupts family togetherness. Discuss with your child why it is better to stop the habit, and come up with some strategies for dealing with it together. One idea is to substitute other (harmless) behaviors, such as a squeeze ball, which will occupy his hands during the time that he would otherwise be sucking his thumb, or perhaps chewing sugarless gum would keep his mouth otherwise occupied.
From the tone of your letter, it is obvious that you realize that your son is not doing this to intentionally be “bad.” It is not misbehaving in any sense of the word, and it is important that all family members treat your son with respect and understanding as you try to help him through this transitional time.
— Dr. Susan Markel, MD
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Markel, M.D. is a board-certified pediatrician who has a private consultative practice specializing in parent coaching and child health. A graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Dr. Markel became a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1981 and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) in 1997. For many years she served as a medical liaison for La Leche League and is the author of What Your Pediatrician Doesn’t Know Can Hurt Your Child.
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