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FAQ: When (and how) should I stop my child from sucking his thumb?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  February 6, 2013 08:53 AM

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The other day I was seeing a 1-month-old. "He likes to suck his thumb," said his mother. "What can I do to stop it? I don't want him to get into the habit."

While most of the time when I hear that question the child is older, this is one of the most common--and tough--questions I hear. So when a reader asked if I could write about it, I thought it was a great idea. 

While some parents worry about their child being teased for thumbsucking, parents mostly worry about what it will do to their teeth. So to make sure I was giving the best and most correct advice possible, I asked Dr. Man Wai Ng, the chief of the Department of Dentistry at Boston Children's Hospital, to help me out. 

"Most children stop the habit on their own by age 4 years," says Dr. Ng. Which is good, because if kids stop by 3 or 4, it usually doesn't cause any problems with their teeth. So before then, it's fine not to bug your kid about it (and bugging is unlikely to do much anyway at that age).

Between 4 and 6 years, it's time to take action. Don't nag or punish, Dr. Ng says, because it may create more tension and make things worse. She suggests being positive instead, rewarding kids for not doing it. Catch them being good--when you notice they aren't sucking their thumb at a time they usually do, give lots of kudos--stickers and other little prizes go over well too. Set simple goals, like: if you don't suck your thumb for the next hour, we'll have an extra story before bed. 

You can also try mittens or bandages, which make it harder and less comfortable to suck the thumb (this is particularly useful for those kids who suck while they sleep). Bitter-tasting stuff painted on the thumb can help too (Dr. Ng has had good luck with the brand Mavala Stop) although many of my patients either figure out how to wash it off--or just get used to it and keep sucking.

If your child is older than 6 and still sucking his thumb despite your best efforts, talk to your dentist; there are appliances that might help. And talk to your doctor--working as a team, there's always a solution.

Do you have a question you'd like me to answer? Leave me a message on my Facebook page.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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