Thursday, February 6, 2014

Breaking the Thumb Sucking Habit

Both of my sweet girls happen to be thumb suckers. But it wasn't for lack of trying to get them to take pacifiers. I'm well aware of the recommendation to wait until a breastfed baby is 1 month old before offering a pacifier. But the very first night in the hospital I was grabbing for the thing. At home, I was not only offering, but downright encouraging because...well... I really wanted to sleep. My first {Autumn} took the pacifier a little bit but it just never stuck.

My maternity leave ended all too soon and I returned to work (at 12 weeks). While I sent the pacifier along to day care, Autumn chose her thumb instead. Talk about mommy guilt! Within days of my return to work, she was finding comfort in her thumb. At the time, I had to remind myself I really couldn't control her thumb sucking and although I was at work, she was receiving fantastic care from people who love her. And a tiny baby sucking their thumb is actually pretty darn cute.

Fast forward almost 2 years later and baby #2 {Amelia} enters the family. She also found comfort in her thumb but for her it was even before I returned to work. And as Autumn said at the time, "We're both sumb suckers." (and, yes, it was thumb with an "S"). And, believe it or not, they both only suck their left thumb.

We went for Autumn's first "official" dental visit a few months ago (just after she turned 3). The dentist looked in her mouth for about 3 seconds before she asked her if she happens to suck her thumb. She could tell instantly due to her teeth already shifting. The dentist said the goal would be for her to break the habit by age 4 because that's the age when permanent damage can occur. She also said there is large variation (meaning she could be much younger or much older before her teeth would be affected). The pediatric dentist fully recognizes that Autumn is young and it will be hard - especially at night. We also know we we want the process to be gentle as possible.

I decided to approach breaking the thumb sucking habit in a similar style to potty training. For us, this was a slow and steady method. And just as Autumn is not night time potty trained, I do not expect her to stop sucking her thumb at night for a very long time. 

But we are on the right track with breaking the habit during the day. Our first stop was the Target $1 bin. There, Autumn was allowed to select several items to put in her prize basket. Mommy picked a few items for the basket too. 

And we set the timer. With potty training you are trying to get a child to DO something when the timer goes off. While trying to break a habit you are trying to get the child to STOP doing something for the entire length of time that the timer is set. And that can be pretty tough for a young child to remember. But I went ahead and made the old, familiar sticker chart and set the timer.
I started with 5 minutes and she earned a prize after 5 stickers just to try to gain momentum. I added 5 minutes for each line she completed. We're on 20 minute time periods now and will stay at this time until she masters it. She often starts sucking her thumb right at the 18 or even 19 minute mark. 

The thing that has actually been the most effective is the reminder to stop the behavior with an immediate consequence and reward system. My children use their thumbs not only for comfort and to help them fall asleep but also while doing basically any quiet activity. Since TV is a pretty special treat in our house that was our first "no thumb sucking time." If the thumb was in the mouth, then the TV was paused. Quite effective. Once she became mostly successful with that, we moved on to other activities. This includes story time and listening to her music in the car. We still have a long way to go. Sometimes she even chooses her thumb over the music. But I'm proud at how often I watch her automatically start putting her thumb in her mouth and then she quickly stops and puts her hand down as she remembers. Of course, there's a lot of clapping and congratulations, just as there was when there was potty success.

This is a work in progress. I know there will be a lot of sticker charts in our future. One thing I have already learned is that I will plan to start this process earlier with Amelia, maybe around her second birthday. And I will only hope for relatively quick success of breaking the habit of two thumb suckers. In the meantime, I'm still consider opening a "braces" savings account!

Have you had to break your child of a habit such as thumb sucking (or the pacifier, carrying around a blanky or nail biting)? What ways did you find success?  
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