Weaning from Thumb/Finger Sucking

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Find out when to wean from finger or thumb sucking, 3 rules to follow, and tips for making the weaning process successful.

Child sucking thumb

Letting your little one suck her thumb or fingers has been very convenient…up until this point.

Now that you want to wean from the sucking, you may be feeling some worry and anxiety over accomplishing this goal. You cannot take a finger or thumb away like you can other sleep props, so it can be a challenge.

Despite the challenge, it can be done! I had one child who was a finger sucker and one who was a thumb sucker. It was overall an easy process. I did not try to prevent my youngest child from sucking something, so I wasn’t traumatized in the least by the process (my youngest never did suck anything).

Best Age to Wean from Finger or Thumb Sucking

You are probably wondering what age you need to drop the finger or thumb sucking by.

Learning to not suck on something for soothing is something that takes time. Think of it as a slow process.

I talk about this below, but by 6 months old, start limiting the sucking to only time in the crib. You can have allowances when your child is super upset or you are in public and need to think of others, but for the most part, limit sucking to when in the bed.

Stay in contact with a pediatric dentist if you are concerned about your child’s teeth or mouth.

The dentist can tell you if permanent damage is being done or not.

Most dentists don’t worry about it until after age four (some say three).

Start limiting sucking out of bed around 6 months old. From that point, work toward eliminating sucking altogether. Have a goal to drop it fully, including naps and nights, by age 4.

Use a Soothing Substitute

On Becoming Toddlerwise has some information on weaning from thumb and finger sucking.

Authors Ezzo and Bucknam stress the importance of using substitution to be able to successfully wean from this habit.

Substitution is when you use something in place of an undesirable action. Read more about this concept here: How to Use Substitution for Toddler Discipline.

Your child sucks thumb/finger out of a need for self-soothing, so when you are working to stop or slow down the behavior, you want to find a replacement activity.

You also want to keep your child’s hands busy. It is very easy to go back to sucking without thinking about it. This might be with “…a soft blanket or stuffed animal to hold instead” (page 161).

Limit Sucking Out of Bed

Okay, so step one was to find a substitute when soothing is needed.

But children will also suck purely out of habit. It can be mindless, but not in need of actual comfort.

The child might be bored or might not be thinking anything about it at all.

You can help minimize this by not allowing sucking to happen outside the bedroom at a certain age.

If you have a thumb or finger sucker (or even a pacifier sucker), it is a good idea to limit sucking out of bed starting at 6 months old. This age is easy to do.

Give a 6 month old something to play with and she will not be worried about sucking. As they get older, you just remind them that they may not suck unless they are in bed. 

I have an exception to this, however, and that is if a child is hurt or overly tired, I allow it. This is allowing for flexibility in the context of the situation.

Remind Child to Remove Finger or Thumb

Since you cannot remove a finger or thumb, it is a good idea to have some patience with the process and expect it to be a process and not something accomplished in 1-3 nights.

When your child has a finger or thumb in her mouth, simply remind her to take it out. Initially, you can limit it to the bed and remind her, “We don’t suck our thumb unless we are in bed. Do you want to go to bed to suck your thumb or stay out here?”

Then let her choose.

For the baby, just remove the thumb and distract/use substitution.

Let’s review the three basic rules:

  1. Provide a substitute for soothing. This is something to do when you are trying to eliminate sucking, and probably something to do closer to age two.
  2. Give the child something to do to keep hands busy and out of the mouth.
  3. Remind child to take finger/thumb out.

Use Reminders

Once you are ready to drop the finger and thumb sucking, your child is probably old enough and mature enough to be on board with that.

But of course, it is easy to just start sucking.

Something we have used with great success is a simple band aid. We put it on the finger thumb and it helps remind the child to not suck. 

When that thumb goes in the mouth and they feel the bandaid, they remember they are not supposed to be sucking.

When one daughter worked on not sucking at night, she wore a glove to bed for several nights. She wanted to stop sucking, so she was willing to keep the glove on and it prevented her from sucking while half asleep.

Wean at a Good Time

Wean from the sucking at night at a good time for the child. Do not do it when she has something big the next day. Ideally, you will just be home the next day and can just relax.

She will not sleep as well for a few nights while she gets used to this new way of sleeping. At transitions, she will wake more fully. Her sleep with be disrupted.

We all know disrupted sleep leads to grumpiness. It is also hard to focus.

She won’t be at her best. So time it wisely and give her lots of grace.

Give Warning

I talk about this a lot with so many big life transitions.

Kids really do well with big transitions if they have some sort of warning. “Right after your next birthday, you are going to start sleeping without sucking your thumb!”

This gives kids time to mentally prepare and process what will be happening. They can ask you questions and you can get them excited for it!

Conclusion

This process can be quite easy. Start limiting at 6 months old, use substitution when your little one wants to suck, and wean fully by age 3-4 years old.

For more information for preschoolers and older, I found this helpful article: Thumbsucking Beyond the Toddler Years.

THUMBS

Shel Silverstein

Oh the thumb-sucker’s thumb
May look wrinkled and wet
And withered, and white as the snow, 
But the taste of a thumb
Is the sweetest taste yet
(As only we thumb-suckers know)

Related Posts

Weaning from thumb sucking

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