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Breaking the Thumb-Sucking Habit

Breaking the Thumb-Sucking Habit<

Support, Guidance Key

"If a child who is older than 5 or 6 is still sucking his thumb and having difficulty stopping, parents ought to think about what they can do to help him," Hack says. Before insisting that a child go "cold turkey," it's important to observe how deeply entrenched your child's behavior is, she says. How often does your child suck and in front of whom? If it happens only at bedtime or in front of family members, it's a less serious problem than if it happens at school or in social situations.

Attempts to steer a child away from thumb-sucking can backfire if they are not tempered with support and guidance. Don't nag or reprimand your child, and don't pull a child's finger out of his mouth. These kinds of actions can result in a power struggle, experts say. "The truth is most kids over 6 really do want to stop, but they need some extra help," Goldstein says.

Simple Treatment Plan

Breaking a habit is a much easier feat when the child is a willing participant. Many parents have success with a simple behavioral approach that engages the child in the process. Here's how it works:

First, says Hack, call a one-month moratorium on discussion. "If finger-sucking is part of a power struggle, not mentioning it may help extinguish the behavior," she says. Next, buy poster board and stickers and make a "progress chart." Offer a prize at the end of each week for no sucking -- and a larger reward at the end of the month. Make sure that your child has an active role in the plan; for example, decide together how many slip-ups he's allowed each week and have him choose the stickers and place them on the chart.

It may also be helpful to place a bitter-tasting liquid on the nail (not directly on the finger), especially at night, as a reminder not to suck. Products for this purpose are sold over the counter, but home remedies can be just as effective. What worked for Michael was perfume. Each night for two weeks, I asked him to choose a bottle of perfume from my collection. He would sniff them all, pick one, and I would place a dab at the tip of his finger. "Yuck," he'd always say, but he clearly welcomed the crutch. Mittens, gloves, or a finger-splint may also be worn at night. It may take six weeks or more to successfully break the habit.

Dentists Can Help, Too

While your child is trying to change his or her behavior, it's essential to give lots of praise and support: an extra cuddle, a special outing, playing a new game together. Be aware of situations that might promote thumb-sucking, like TV or riding in the car. "Use your imagination to guide your child to other means of solace that are more age-appropriate," Hack says.

If this program doesn't work, don't despair. Breaking a longstanding habit is difficult and some children may need additional help. Talk to your child's dentist, who may recommend inserting a device in the child's mouth that prevents sucking. These oral appliances go by names like "palatal bar" and "crib" and come in fixed and removable versions.

If the problem seems particularly resistant to treatment, this may be a signal that your child is troubled about a deeper problem, Goldstein says. In this case, you may want to seek the advice of a mental health professional.

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