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The so-called tensional outlets, of which thumbsucking is only one, increase during the preschool years. It’s rare to see a four year old who doesn’t suck a thumb or chew a nail or stammer or fidget in some way.

Preschoolers are very busy learning about, and organizing, their world which is changing every day. Growing up is a stressful job and children need some harmless release of tension.

Each child develops at his at her own pace and development itself solves most problems. As children mature, they are better able to stop doing what the parents don’t like to see or what might cause injury, like a sore thumb.

Most–but not all–children stop thumbsucking by the time they start school. This means parents of preschoolers can and should ignore thumbsucking.

After age five or so, chronic thumbsucking can affect the alignment of the child’s teeth. Also when the child starts school, there might be teasing by other children for exhibiting a behavior considered babyish.

So I have different advice for parents of a school age thumbsucker. You still ignore the habit in the sense that you do not nag, punish, yell, or name-call (“You’re a big baby!”).

I offer the following suggestions:

o Start with a visit to the dentist. If the dentist says that the child’s bite is not affected, you can relax about the downside of thumbsucking. If the teeth are affected the dentist will advise you.

o Remind yourself that the CHILD owns the problem. The child is the only one who can stop the thumbsucking.

o Ask your child, “Do you want to stop sucking your thumb?” If the answer is yes, you can try using a bitter substance (Stop-zit is available at drug stores). Tell your child, “The bad taste can really help remind you to keep your thumb out of your mouth so don’t wash this magic medicine off.”

o Get a book called David Decides About Thumbsucking by Susan Heitler. (You can order from the publisher: Reading Matters, P.O. Box 300309, Denver, CO 80203, (303) 757-3506.)

The very title of the book reinforces the point that the child is the one who has to decide. The book starts off with a story, accompanied by wonderful photographs, about how a little boy named David learns to keep his thumb out of his mouth. Children who are concerned about their thumbsucking will enjoy having their parents read this to them.

The second section of the book teaches parents about thumbsucking and the behavioral modification techniques that can help a motivated child stop.

o You can try “paradoxical therapy.” When your child starts thumbsucking say, “I see you have a need to suck your thumb so I’ll help you catch up on your thumbsucking. You go to that chair and sit there and suck your thumb until I tell you to stop.” This gets pretty boring and some kids realizing they will be sent to a thumbsucking place with nothing to do but suck the thumb usually won’t let you catch them at it too many times.

o Limit TV and substitute more active things to do. Encourage your child to play out of doors, help start projects like collecting and labelling rocks to keep the kid busy.

o Reassure your child that eventually everybody stops thumbsucking.

Many parents find it difficult to carry out the non-interference policy. When I was feeling OK I ignored my daughter’s habit, but when I was tired or cross the sight of her sucking her fingers (she preferred the middle two fingers to the thumb) irritated me because I felt like a failure as a parent. If I was doing a good job how could my daughter possibly be tired or unhappy? On more than one occasion I lost my cool, told her to stop sucking her fingers, and then felt guilty. She gave up sucking her fingers at about age five when she was ready, but I regret the mixed messages I gave her.

I wish I had thought of this behavioral modification back then. Put a rubber band on YOUR wrist and snap it to remind YOU that thumbsucking is a harmless habit and you need not interfere.