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Breaking Harmful Habits

Thumb (or digit) sucking or using a pacifier may seem like a cute, harmless habit. But, here are some facts you may not know from Rosemarie A. Van Norman, author and nationally recognized oral myologist.

-40% of children who suck their thumb or other digits had learning and behavioral problems in school

- 59% of digit suckers experience atypical root resorption

- 60% of malocclusion is caused by prolonged digit sucking

- 85% of digit suckers exhibit an open bite

- Open bites many times lead to TMD due to laterally shifting of the jaw in order to chew

If you follow me on social media you may have already seen these statistics and you might be here to learn more about how you can help your child break this habit and create habits that are healthier for overall development.

I want to encourage you first of all and say that if you're having trouble with this, YOU ARE NOT ALONE! It is very, VERY hard to break this habit, especially when you have a child with an oral fixation. You may need to use a combination of the things I suggest to get results and that's ok. Finding what works and sticking with it, even when it seems impossible are going to get you the results you want.



Is there a certain time of day that you notice your child primarily resorting to the habit. Nap time, bed time, or down time (like playing a tablet or watching TV) tend to be the most common times for young children. Identifying your child’s problem times is helpful in coming up with the best plan for correcting the problem. If you are having success using a device (we'll cover devices a little later on) make sure you have that device in place at these problematic times especially. If you notice your child reverting during screen time, remove the screen for 5-10 minutes each time to you see your child start sucking the thumb. With a pacifier you can remove it from the child, which usually results in outbursts, tears, and tantrums. At times when they are used to having it bring comfort try offering a replacement. You could say something like, "you're such a big girl/boy now you don't need a binky anymore for nap time, but you could snuggle your favorite toy or stuffed animal instead."


For some children having a visual reward system is a great incentive to help them stay on track with letting go of harmful habits. Make sure to set realistic goals for them so they don't get discouraged for not meeting them. For example, an older child might be able to make it a whole day without sucking his or her thumb and get a star, but expecting a toddler to do that would be unrealistic. A better option for a smaller child might be receiving a star for going one nap time without it, or a star for every hour or two they go without. Starting with small step, big reward can be a great way to get kids excited about letting go of the bad habit.


Constant encouragement is key. For some children even having facts about the risks of their habit might help them break it. Talk about how it can effect their smile and how they chew their food and how many germs we have on our hands. Having a perspective other than their parents can be helpful for children as well. Read books about it, watch their favorite shows that have episodes with their favorite characters breaking the habit, and there are some great free resources on YouTube as well. Having encouragement from someone other than their family members can be really helpful for a child to understand they aren't alone and other people have found success.


For some children encouragement, reward, and discussion are just not enough. There are a number of things that can be done to discourage thumb sucking. Unfortunately, this does not apply or work for those who are trying to get rid of a physical pacifier or binky. But, a few options for digit suckers are:

* Plastic, or cloth finger covers. There are a variety of brands on the market that all do effectively do the same thing. You can even try gloves or socks over the hands if you want to use something you already have at home.

* Wrapping your child's elbow in an Ace bandage. The bulk of the bandage on the arm makes it less comfortable for the child to bend the arm to the mouth. There is also a device that can be purchased called a Nipit that physically prevents them from bending the hand at the elbow at all. This unfortunately makes it difficult to do anything else with their arms either, like life a sandwich to their mouth, so it's not the best alternative but a good option for kids with an extreme habit that hasn't been broken with more conventional methods.

*There are some extreme appliances that can be placed by a dentist or orthodontist like a palatal crib or cage. This is a last resort option when all else has failed and the habit is starting to cause severe and irreversible damage to speech and function. It's very costly and has some risks of damage of their own.


There is a product on the market called Chewlry, you can buy it on Amazon that is a wearable jewelry made of silicone that your child can suck or bite on that might help replace the sucking habit and satisfy the oral fixation. The problem may become that they trade one habit for another. There is also the option of bitter or foul tasting nail polish that you can put on the child's thumbs or fingers, or even on a pacifier.

There are some drawbacks to this method:

*The child might get used to the taste and it may become ineffective.

*You may end up inadvertently getting it on yourself and ending up with a nasty flavor in your mouth all day.

*Children may dislike the taste so much that when they do forget and put their fingers or pacifier in their mouth it results in a meltdown several times a day.

I hope these tips have helped you. I would love to know what you try and what you had success with. If there is something you tried that wasn't on this list, I would love to hear about it. Send me an email, or a message through Facebook or Instagram and tell me your stories!

Other information sources:

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