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Getting My Daughter To Stop Sucking Her Thumb

Getting My Daughter To Stop Sucking Her Thumb: A Pediatric Dentist’s Perspective

A born thumb sucker


As a Pediatric Dentist I see, first hand and on a daily basis, the dental effects of prolonged thumb sucking.  As a father, I would see the same thing when I got home from the office.  My eldest daughter, from the time she was born, has used her mouth as a “thumb holder.”  Initially, I was adamant about trying to pull it out of her mouth for fear that it would become a habit.  However, as a first time father and after about a week of not getting any sleep, I waived the white flag in surrender and decided it would be a battle that I would face later.  Plus, babies sucking their thumbs are cute right?  My daughter was what we call an “active sucker” which is to say that the thumb doesn’t simply sit in the mouth but the muscles around the mouth are actively contracting (think baby Maggie from The Simpsons).   Because of her persistent habit, as my daughter got older I began to see her teeth move and shift and I knew it was time that a change needed to be made.

Easier said than done

The first step towards breaking a thumb habit is positive reinforcement and encouragement.  This comes in lots of flavors.  We initially told my daughter that she was a “big girl” and so we didn’t want her to suck her thumb anymore.  We told her “princesses don’t suck their thumbs because they didn’t want their princess teeth to move all around.”  Anytime she took her thumb out of her mouth we would applaud and shower her with praises about how proud we were, only to see the thumb slip back in about five minutes later.  The toughest times to stop, which are the case in most patients I see, are the “down times.”  This includes watching movies, riding in the car, and falling asleep.  We found that no amount of positive reinforcement of encouragement could compete with naptime as far as thumb sucking was concerned.

The bribes, the Band-Aids, and the bitter

Our next step in combating the thumb habit was an incentive system; let’s be honest… it was bribing.  We told her that if she could go 30 days (the amount of time it has been shown to break a habit) without sucking her thumb, she could get a special toy from the toy store.  When we would initially bring this up she would get very excited and make bold proclamations like, “I won’t suck my thumb anymore so I can get a special toy.”  This enthusiasm would quickly wane though, and we’d end up back to square one.  We then tried placing a Band-Aid on both her thumbs in order to help her remember not to suck them.  This would inevitably end in one of two scenarios: a wet Band-Aid covered thumb, or a wet thumb with a missing Band-Aid later to be found somewhere in my daughter’s bed.  I had heard many parents report success with using one of the many varieties of bitter nail polish products.  We actually initially had success with this method before my daughter became immune and unbothered by the bitter taste.

Thumb guard to the rescue

Feeling discouraged, I had a new sense of empathy and understanding for all those parents that I had told needed to stop their kids from sucking their thumbs.  It was humbling that I couldn’t get my own daughter to stop and I could see her bite getting worse.  I knew I could always make a thumb-sucking appliance (kind of like a retainer to block the thumb), but I wasn’t too excited about taking an impression on my three year old with a hair-trigger gag reflex.  Instead, I decided to try a thumb guard.  Specifically the one I used was by a company called “TGuard.”  The reason I choose to use this particular brand was simply because this was the brand we carried in the office at the time.  It is essentially a plastic tube that goes around the thumb and connects to a bracelet that snaps around the wrist.  The thought behind this design is that although the child can physically put their thumb in their mouth, the tube around the thumb allows air to pass though so they cannot form that “soothing suction seal” around the thumb.  Conceptually this made sense to me and seemed secure enough to where I wasn’t worried about my daughter being able to slip it off.  So with our hopes held high, we put the thumb guards on for the first night and waited with baited breath.

Princess gloves and sleepless nights

So in case you haven’t realized it yet, my daughter is very into princesses.  Because of this we told her that her thumb guards were her “new princess gloves.”  It helped that she had just seen the movie Frozen in which Princess Elsa wore gloves.  We talked it up like it was something she should be excited about, but to be completely honest as soon as we put it on she was asking me to take it off.  The first couple of nights were rough because sucking her thumb is what my daughter used in order to fall asleep.  However, after about three nights, things started to get back to normal.  Because my daughter sucked her thumb throughout the day we kept the thumb guard on 24 hours a day. We would change it once and day and clean her hands really well.  The one thing that we had to be careful of was making sure that we kept the area dry while the thumb guard was on.  She did experience some mild skin irritation, but thumb sucking in and of itself can also cause skin irritation so this was something we were ok to deal with.  The only other obstacle with using a thumb guard is that it is very obvious and out there for everybody to see.  This was not a problem for my daughter as she was too young to feel any embarrassment, but I could see this being a possible issue for some parents.  We want to protect our children from being perceived by others as “different” and to be honest I felt a slight tinge of this as we would go out in public and I would see people notice her “princess gloves.”  This feeling quickly dissipated as I realized this was for her own benefit, it wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things (I know a lot of parents who must deal with WAY more serious issues), and it obviously did not bother my daughter.

Thirty-ish days

Most of the literature, including what is on the TGuard website, states that it takes 30 days to break a habit.  This is what I have been taught; this is what I tell parents… this is not what I experienced with my daughter.   As we made our way through the first thirty days I could tell that the habit was indeed getting better.  She had all but essentially stopped placing her thumb in her mouth so I was confident that when we reached 30 days we’d be able to put all of this behind us.  I think there were maybe two times within those first 30 days that she somehow slipped the bracelet off, but otherwise things were going as planned.  At the end of thirty days we told her that she didn’t have to wear her bracelets anymore and we took them off.  I think that the first couple of days after that, things were perfect.  I felt proud of my daughter and proud of myself that we had kicked the habit.  About a week after we had taken the bracelets off though I heard a familiar sound coming from the monitor at night.  It was a subtle sound of sucking and when I checked the video monitor I saw my daughter asleep with her thumb in her mouth.  Needless to say, I was disheartened.  The good news was that she was no longer sucking throughout the day, but it was the dreaded nighttime that we couldn’t past.  What we ended up doing was only placing the thumb guards again, but this time only at night.  I’m happy to report that after about 20 days of doing this my daughter finally stopped, for real, for good… thank goodness.

Happily ever after

After stopping her thumb sucking, I began to see the dental effects of my daughter’s habit start to reverse and correct.  I was proud of her and she was proud of herself.  She would say things like, “Daddy I don’t suck my thumb anymore because I’m big,” and it always made me smile.  I’ve got two more little ones, one of which has her own prominent thumb habit, so I know I’ll have to travel this road at least once more. It was long and at times pretty difficult, but I know it’s possible.  It was all worth it on the day I was able to bring my oldest daughter to the toy store and let her pick out her new toy… a new princess doll of course.

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