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The Informed Parent

Finger Sucking: Breaking The Habit

by Lori A. Livingston, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Feb. 21, 2011
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Finger sucking, pacifier use, or other non-nutritive sucking is a common habit in infancy. This is normal behavior and often helps infants learn how to self-sooth, a vital skill for good sleep and other behavioral challenges. Studies show that approximately 30% of one year old children engage in finger sucking, and most of these children will stop the behavior without any intervention by the time they reach three-to-four years of age.

However, prolonged finger sucking can become a health problem. It deserves special attention in an older child to help break the habit. Common problems include finger deformities, skin infections, skin irritation, tooth and palate growth abnormalities, and social stigmatization leading to potential mental health or behavior difficulties.

So, what can a parent do to help a child break the habit? There are several well studied methods. However, it may take trying all of them, additional creativity and much patience to help a child find another method of self-soothing.

  1. Positive Reenforcement

    1. Praise a child when he avoids finger/pacifier sucking.
    2. Create a reward system with the child’s help such as a “star“ for each day of no finger sucking and a reward after a certain number of stars.
    3. Continue for several months.
  2. Negative Reinforcement

    1. Verbal and physical punishment are NOT recommended.
    2. Try a deterrent such as topical bitter substances, bandages, or glove-like devices which are available and can sometimes be effective.
  3. Distraction

    1. Finger sucking and pacifiers are often used when children are bored or falling asleep.
    2. Limit television and other inactive times, and encourage activities using both hands.
    3. A study shows that children can be taught to use an alternate behavior such as fist or knee clinching when they have the urge to finger suck.
  4. Dental Applicance Therapy

    1. This is best used as a last resort, after trying the other methods outlined above.
    2. These dental devices can sometimes cause pain, irritation, infection and emotional distress.
    3. It is important to discuss the risks and benefits with a dental expert.

Most importantly, be supportive of your child. Adults know how difficult it can be to break a habit (ex: nail biting, skin picking, nose picking, smoking, etc.) Children deserve time and patience to break this habit and adjust to other methods of self-soothing.


Reference: Consultant for Pediatricians, July 2010

 



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