Sucky Habits: Part Two
By Sharon Kuttler, RDH
January 24, 2013

Practical tips for parents looking to break sucky habits:

1. Don’t Plug the Baby
Because no parent likes to hear their baby cry, it can be tempting to help, hush the baby by plugging in a pacifier, thumb or bottle. Weigh this impulse against the possible long-term difficulties and address why the baby is crying. Try the reassurance of holding the child for a period of cry time to release the day’s energy and allow the child to fall asleep before encouraging the thumb, finger or pacifier.

2. Pacifier or Fingers and Thumbs
A pacifier has the major advantage that it can be gradually limited during the day, and eventually used at bedtime only. While habitual sucking on anything can create dental malformations, pacifiers may exert less pressure against the teeth than thumbs. However sucking can be more intense with a pacifier, which leads to greater potential for a dental cross bite. NEVER dip a pacifier in something sweet to encourage use; this has devastating effects on baby teeth as they come in. Speech–Language pathologist at Mercy Service Club Autism Center Laura Keehner advised parents to “choose a pacifier over a thumb and keep the habit to sleeping time and not all day long.” She explained that this allows for more normal tongue and articulator movement during the waking hours, so toddlers don’t “talk around” a pacifier.

3. Reducing the Habit
After age two the sucking habit is less a physical need and is more emotional. The longer the habit persists the more difficult it is to break. If your child has celebrated his second birthday, you should consider reducing pacifier use.

Start by noticing when and where the sucking is prevalent; is it with a favorite toy or blanket? You can start by limiting the ‘props’ during the day, keeping them only in the bedroom. Offer reassuring hugs instead of putting something in the child’s mouth (including food, milk or juice). Avoid reacting strongly to these limits; rather than ‘rules’ use good humored, gentle reminders such as “teddy stays in your crib” or “no blankets in the kitchen.”

4. Stay Positive
As soon as the child is able to engage in self-responsibility, the process of ending the finger or thumb habit can begin. Ending the habit is more of a process than an event, and it’s critical that parents approach this with gentleness and kindness, or the habit may become more intense. No punishing, no negativity—only measures to reinforce and assist, so you can positively work together. The child must also be at a stage where she is psychologically equipped to want to change, and choose to participate in the process. Think of this like potty training time, when time and intent are focused on the desired outcome. Understanding the readiness of the child is the key to success with changing these habits. Discuss it, but don’t make it an argument. A gentle discussion at a dental visit can help set the stage to move in the right direction.

Dr. Valerie Peckosh, a Dubuque dentist who specializes in pediatric dentistry, shared ideas that have worked well in her practice. To be successful, all of these require the commitment and willingness of the child and the patience and perseverance of the caregivers to stay with the process. Use encouragement and positive words like “this will help you remember” or “this will help remind you to choose” rather than “this will make you stop.”

  1. Use a positive reward system. Keep a chart, decide on a gift or treat.
  2. A fabric style band-aid on the finger or thumb can be a helpful daytime reminder.
  3. Attach a sock with a few stitches to a pajama sleeve to help keep thumbs and fingers out of the mouth during sleep time.
  4. For known ‘sucking times,’ use a distraction technique to keep hands busy. For example, carry extra toys in the car to occupy the child’s attention, or at home have a squeeze ball available when watching television.

Any parent will tell you that this process can wear on your patience, but in those moments, remember the peace and comfort the pacifier or thumb brought. Then look ahead to the beautiful smile your little one will shine back at you.

This blog post is continued from Sucky Habits: Part One.

The original article appeared in Parenting Today & Tomorrow magazine.