Stop a toddler from sucking her thumb?
March 28, 2011 1:10 AM   Subscribe

How can I stop a toddler from sucking her thumb?

She's nearly two. Sucked her thumb until a few months ago, when she broke the skin and it got a little infected. Still needed us to remind her for a few weeks, but stopped quite willingly.

Suddenly she's started again - and this time nowhere near as compliant. She's alreay broken the skin again, so we're trying to stop it getting infected, but keeping the thumb out is a bit of a battle of wills...

Any ideas?
posted by monkey closet to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
there's that polish you can apply to the thumbs. makes it taste HORRIBLE.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:46 AM on March 28, 2011

Here it is.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:47 AM on March 28, 2011

I sucked my thumb into kindergarten. It was very comforting.

One evening my dad asked me if I wanted to stop. I said yes, so he put Tabasco sauce on my thumb. I only needed one application. Done.

Unintended consequences: I remember the experience as clear as day. I love hot sauce.
posted by plinth at 3:01 AM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: Suddenly she's started again - and this time nowhere near as compliant. She's alreay broken the skin again, so we're trying to stop it getting infected, but keeping the thumb out is a bit of a battle of wills...

She's not even two yet, so you're most likely not going to stop this by correction. She's probably not at a level of mental development where she can understand consequences past the immediate, which is why so many continued yet corrected behaviors in two-year-olds seem frustrating. I know first-hand because my daughter is two and four months.

My wife is an early childhood education consultant, and I knew nothing about young children until I had one but now I get near-daily interesting lessons. This is one that I've had to work hard to fully absorb because these types of corrections are frustrating to me-- both your and my daughter have the language skills to understand that a certain action/behavior is forbidden, yet they still do them.

To give you an example from my own house-- my daughter, if left alone at nap/bedtime with a board book that has any amount of peeling/separation to a page, will compulsively pick off the loose bits and destroy the page as her peeling creates more loose ends for her to pick. She knows that she's not to do it, but when she does she's fully absorbed in the process. Then when she's finished she will regret it and tearfully tell us "I ripped a book!" It's not manipulation on her part (most kids her age are not capable of anything this sophisticated)--she's not sad just because she knows we will disapprove, but mostly because she realizes that she may loose the book. She unfailing sobs "Can Daddy fix it?" But children absolutely live in the moment most of time by nature of their still-developing brains.

Trying to correct a toddler's destructive behavior is one step above correcting a smart, naughty dog like a beagle or a Jack Russell. The dog knows that your forbid it from getting into the garbage, and knows in the abstract that it will earn your disapproval/punishment, but in the moment it has to do it if it sees the garbage and the opportunity presents itself. It doesn't have the mental abilities to think ahead and say "It's not worth it." I say that toddlers are "one step above because" they can understand in theory why the actions are negative, whether it's "it actually hurts your thumb" or it's "the book will get thrown out and you won't have it anymore." But they don't have the facilities to stop themselves in the moment any more than the dog does.

So I don't think that you're going to get anywhere by vocal correction at this age and likewise I don't think that painting the child's thumb with Bittrex is going to be a long-term solution. DON'T use hot sauce-- a two year old WILL get the hot sauce into her eyes, nose or vagina. I think you have two options here:

1. Use Bittrex long enough for her thumb to heal. Maybe she'll forget about it totally in that span, but unless you're willing to keep it up for at least a year, I don't think this is going to be permanent. But if you're dilligent it may give the thumb time to repair itself.

2. Introduce a replacement to suck on. Does she have pacifiers? You're trading one addiction for another, but she won't get her pacifier infected. Breaking a kid from a paci apparently sucks too, but in a year or two when she's more attuned to consequences and long-term thinking, you're going to have to work on the thumb sucking anyway. And if the idea of sucking her thumb has been thoroughly replace by a pacifier, it's a lot easier to take her pacifier than her thumb.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:48 AM on March 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

The polish stuff worked wonders for our toddler. You can put it on the nails and pretend it's a "fashion" thing.
posted by quaisi at 3:58 AM on March 28, 2011

I sucked my thumb until I was nine. That bitter stuff wears off after a few minutes and is pretty easy to put up with until that happens.

Having something physically obstructing my thumb, like a big piece of tape wrapped around it or something, would do it though because it's all about how it feels. So maybe a secure waterproof plaster will help it heal and at least stop the damage, if not the actual sucking.
posted by shelleycat at 4:29 AM on March 28, 2011

Best answer: Seconding the above that maybe she's a little young yet to worry about it. But you know your kid's development best.

You could try peer pressure. Does she have any Big Girl Cousins who don't suck their thumbs that she could have a sleepover with?

Or you could tie quitting to something really great: "Oh, we can't sign up for Gymboree yet. Only kids who don't suck their thumbs can go to those classes!"

But, really? I wouldn't worry about it too much just yet. Has she been to a dentist yet? Maybe wait until her first dental visit, when the dentist can explain the best way to take care of her beautiful smile?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:36 AM on March 28, 2011

Listen to Major Curly, especially point 2. "That polish", btw., is listed as being suitable for 3years and over.
posted by Namlit at 6:40 AM on March 28, 2011

The only problem with SuperSquirrel's idea is that, if upon quitting and going to said wonderful activity she encounters kids who do suck their thumb, she will likely start again, and be less likely to listen to such "Kids who do y dont do x" statements.
posted by strixus at 7:10 AM on March 28, 2011

Nthing the dummy (pacifier) - it can be taken away quite easily one the child is older and their understanding of the situation is better. Dummies would be much better than an ongoing infection.

If you're maybe worried about having to break a dummy habit - my wife and I fairly easily weaned our three kids off dummies. For a couple of weeks before their third birthdays, my wife and I prepared them with a nightly story of the 'dummy fairy' coming to visit at night on their birthday and having to take all their dummies to give to new babies in the hospital, now that they were so grown up and didn't need the dummy any more. (Of course I'm sure you could be much more original / creative!). We had maybe one or two upset nights without the dummy, but overall it was pretty painless and - I can only imagine - much easier than giving up sucking a thumb / fingers.

And another personal anecdote - my sister sucked her thumb from being a toddler until she was in her early teens. The only thing that made her give up was peer group pressure - the polish didn't work, discipline didn't work.
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 7:19 AM on March 28, 2011

Kids wean themselves off dummies through peer pressure when time comes. Nearly two is too early to invent peer pressure for them. Again, listen to Major Curly. Even if this girl is smart and funny and whatnot, developmental stages cannot be skipped. She's too young for social tinkering, and trying will do little good.
posted by Namlit at 7:49 AM on March 28, 2011

Pretty much every behavior has a need behind it--in this case it's probably comfort or soothing. So if you want her to stop the behavior that comforts/soothes, you need to help her develop a new comforting/self-soothing behavior as you try to guide her away from this particular one. Don't just try to get her to stop sucking her thumb, help her develop a replacement behavior that's not self-harming. You know your kiddo, and what she responds to, but you could try things like a pacifier as suggested above, or a stuffed animal to hug.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:18 AM on March 28, 2011

Since you are worried about infection and not just appearance - One Step Ahead sells a hand brace to prevent thumb sucking on their website. I've never used it, but maybe someone who has can tell us whether it was a good idea? (It looks sad, I know, but to prevent infections...)
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:43 AM on March 28, 2011

My wife, who is brilliant, invented "the thumb fairy" for my daughter at about this age. At night when my wife went in to check on my sleeping daughter, if the thumb was in the mouth, the thumb fairly left a gentle note (add glitter, stickers, as required) encouraging her to try to fall asleep without it, so she could leave a gift. When the thumb was out, my daughter woke up to happy thumbfairy notes and little dollar store gifties. She was always so thrilled to wake up and see what the thumbfairy had left her.

The "science" behind this was that if she could get herself to sleep without it, she could do just about anything without it. And it worked, she's 16 now and doesn't suck her thumb, and we have a box full of awesome thumbfairy notes.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:11 AM on March 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

The nail polish stuff has had no effect on our four year old. Yuck-suck-yuck-suck-oh it's gone now.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:45 PM on March 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

hal_c_on: "Here it is."

That is labelled as not for children under 3. If you (OP) decided to use it I would check with your doctor first.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:00 PM on March 28, 2011

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