The last pic of Iris sucking the two special fingers. (horns kiddo drew on from Halloween).

Pacifiers are just easier to get rid of because they are not attached, right? Maybe.  As a sleep consultant I will suggest fingers and thumbs as opposed to pacifiers because they cannot be lost in the middle of the night requiring a child to wake a parent!  As a lactation counselor I also prefer fingers to the pacifier from the beginning (You can swaddle a newborn with their fists up). Sucking on a hand is one of the ways babies can tell us they are hungry. The child in the photo above is mine, at 3-years-old. Even though the habit was waning, she had finally begun to notice that some other children weren’t sucking their fingers and had some curiosity about if maybe she might wan to stop.  With the process below (options A and B), finger-sucking was over in a week and it was easy and painless. My child was filled with wonderful sense of accomplishment! Weeks later we were still high-fiving this win.

The truth is that our ape and chimp relatives thumb suck for a long time and cross-culturally we see thumb-sucking allowed until it peters out on its own, without pressure. It might not make for the very most western mouths of perfectly aligned teeth eventually, but is our biological norm. So even though you might want to protect your child’s smile and bite, know that you’re beginning from a very natural place.

Here is How to End Digit-sucking 

1) Make sure your child is old enough to understand what they are doing and to learn or realize that the habit is either causing self harm (as in finger-sucking can damage teeth)  It can be helpful both to talk to the child’s medical care provider with the child or to be able to point out some physical change happening from the behavior. Fingers will often get blisters/callouses and thumbs will often look larger than the thumb not sucked. Even better if the child wants to end the habit on her or his own. These are self-soothing behaviors and only a budding rational mind will be able to compete with the impetus and change a behavior. Babies should be allowed to self-soothe, but eventually you’ll see your toddler or preschooler notice not everyone is thumb-sucking.

Between 2.5 and 4 is a good window. Still, don’t wait too long. Habits get more hard-wired in the brain over time. And similarly to what I say about potty learning, it isn’t as if you are going to give your child the choice to go on without this change forever, you may as well do it now, be clear that it will eventually be expected. Many children will simply end this behavior on their own without help, but some need support. Thumb sucking should be over by 4 years to prevent challenges in palate and new teeth formation.

2) Prepare your child ahead of time in a few random conversations that soon she will be big and not need to suck fingers/suck thumb anymore. Give it some space before beginning so that your child has an opportunity to voice concerns on her own. Let your child know that you will be on your his team, helping him figure out how to stop the habit. Have an aura of partners in crime, without the idea that you are personally going to enforce the change. Making this a power struggle will not be effective.

3) Give the child two choices out of the three below. These options will give the child a moment to pause before they continue the behavior and then they can make a choice repeatedly to stop.

4) Visit the dentist so your child can hear the doctor say how important ending this will be for their development. This takes the pressure and the power struggle off of the parent.

5) Allow one good last suck. Don’t spring it on them, prepare. Once you have a plan for ending thumb or finger sucking, talk about it with your child and tell them this is the last day to have one or two really comforting sucking sessions. Tell them to really enjoy it because we are doing to wake up and not suck their thumb tomorrow.

Option A) Keeping band-aids around the fingers. Fun band-aids are ideal.  Band-aids will help prevent the finger from getting far up enough to attack the boogers and will be very unsatisfying to suck on. But the main hint here is that it is a different feeling, something to shake up the status quo. Or…

Option B) Put Essential Oils under the nails/in the cuticles. You or the child may choose either a scent the child may be averse to or something fairly neutral. Try not to pick something that smells or tastes like cookies, say vanilla or orange.  I suggest something like cedar, clove or oregano- something spicy. Though not toxic, these could still sting the eyes so dilute a drop or two of essential oil in a tsp of carrier oil like olive, only apply a few times a day, minimally under the nails and in the cuticles but not on the finger itself (You can use a cuticle tool/ orange stick to apply).  Remind the child not to put fingers in the eyes. If your child touches his eyes frequently, do not use this option- as it will not damage but it will sting, or use the option only when you can supervise, say while you are watching a movie together. It should only take a few days of this kind of interruption to change patterns for the child, but consistency is key. Focus on doing this constantly for 3-4 few days at a time rather than intermittently. Of course you can also use the chemical nail-biting nail polish (this would be better for children who put fingers in the eyes regularly.)

C) A logical and related reward. I’m not huge on rewards for trying to procure certain behaviors from kids, but I do admit that for kids over 3, working on a goal toward a reward can be very effective. Girls and boys can choose to aim toward a manicure with toxin-free nail polish either at home or at a nail shop. The reward could be rings (you can make great rings that fit tiny fingers and stay on if you use clear stretchy string and tiny beads). You can find stamp rings, batman rings etc.


D) Draw Finger Puppets. Use thin non-toxic markers to draw cute happy faces with clothes and hats on the digit in question. Re-apply after activity or hand washing and ask your child if she can “keep Thumb-Girl alive!” If the finger puppet gets messed up, say playfully, “Oh no, Finger Girl disappeared. I’ll draw her again. Don’t eat her/Let her get lost in your nose!”

A 5+ year-old could come up with their own  idea and you might say “Yay, let’s try it and if it doesn’t work we can try one of my ideas.” It should really only take one or two weeks at the most to break the habit with these tricks.

5) Re-Direct.  Now that you have a plan to not suck fingers, you also need a plan for what your child should do with that self-soothing energy instead. Ask your child if he knows that he is sucking his thumb when you see it and offer another activity for the fingers. “Remember that fingers are for making art/ fingers are for eating snacks.” You can even teach your child to sing “Where is Thumbkin”,  “Twinkle Twinkle” or another hand game song when they realize the hand is going toward the mouth. Or, have your child rub a special stone or crystal in their pocket.

You can provide a replacement habit for a while. Most children shouldn’t need this and I almost fear that we set up just another habit. However, some children will have a habit so ingrained that they need any help possible including being re-directed to something easier on their body or other people’s sensibilities. If the behavior is mostly bedtime and the child already has other bedtime habits, you can re-direct attention to holding a stuffed animal, stroking one’s own hair, feeling/”fuzzing” a blanket etc.

What not to do:

Don’t compare the child to other kids who don’t have the habit, though they may do this on their own.

Don’t make it all about how somebody else wants the child to stop, unless it is doctor or dentist. Focusing on negative attention may cause stress which might cause more of the behavior you are trying to change together.

Don’t begin when the child is starting a new school or moving or just got a brand new sibling.

Don’t point out the habit if the child does it as a comfort when they get hurt. It is too hard to cognitively process the need to not self-soothe this way when they are already disregulated by pain or stress. Focus on correction reminders when the thumb sucking is happening more rote- like sleep, screen time, just sitting alone, snuggling etc.

Best of Luck!

If you need more support- reach out to me moorea @ savvyparentingsupport.com

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