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Three-Year-Old Still Sucks Her Thumb

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Taken from: Growing Concerns- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question: My daughter is 3 and still sucks her thumb. I've read a bit on the subject of getting her to stop, but I am a bit confused. Some say to paint her thumb with a foul-tasting substance, others say to use the "reward" system of stickers or stamps and special outings. She says she "needs" to suck her thumb, but my husband and I are worried about her teeth. What can you suggest?

Answer: Thumb sucking makes many parents uneasy. And it can be confusing to sort through all the possible ways to deal with it. To start, it may help to put yourself in your daughter's shoes, imagining how she will perceive and experience whatever you choose to do. Keeping in mind the developmental nature of 3-year-olds, here are some things to consider:

* Making a major issue of your child's thumb sucking is likely to turn it into a power struggle. And the stress also may make her feel an even stronger need for the comfort of sucking her thumb. Children do best when they perceive that they have some control--a voice in the decisions that affect them. That said, you might choose to let her naturally outgrow her need for thumb sucking. If you're not comfortable with that, or if your pediatric dentist advises you that it's harming her teeth, you would do well to engage your daughter in figuring out how to give up her thumb sucking as she becomes a "big girl."

* Begin by acknowledging her need for comfort. When you're snuggling with her at bedtime, talk about how nice it is to find ways to relax after a busy day. To let go of the comfort of thumb sucking, she needs a substitute. So ask her to brainstorm with you about all the things you and she can do to feel calm and comforted, such as holding a favorite blanket or stuffed animal, drinking warm cocoa before bed, listening to soft music, having a back rub or reading a favorite story.


* Praise your child for thinking of and using those alternatives. If she agrees that it's time to move beyond thumb sucking and praise is not enough of a reward, have her choose rewards she'd like to work toward and let her help make a chart to keep track of her progress.

* Only resort to the foul substance on her thumb if she agrees that she needs that as a reminder; imposing that without her agreement seems unduly punitive. If she does agree, you might want to start by using the substance only during the day when she has lots of other activities to keep her busy, but still allow her the comfort of her thumb at bedtime. Gradually, she'll probably be able to give up her thumb even at night.

Whatever you decide to do about your daughter's thumb sucking, remember that the need for comfort is universal. In the midst of our hectic lives, it's important for family members to support each other in finding healthy ways to feel calm and secure.

The Children, Youth and Family Consortium invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 3 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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