How to Change Childhood Habits

Pediatric Dental Treatment in Grayhawk, Scottsdale, & Shea, AZ

At Affiliated Pediatric Dentistry & Orthodontics (APDO for short), our mission is to help children throughout the Scottsdale, Shea, and Grayhawk, AZ area develop beautiful, healthy smiles that last a lifetime. We're proud to be a comprehensive source for your child's dental development, offering pediatric dental care like teeth cleanings and checkups as well as orthodontic treatments like kids and adult braces. However, we want to help with more than just in-office treatments. If your child is having trouble letting go of pacifier use or thumb sucking – both of which can cause developmental problems in their smile – we can offer a few helpful tips. 

How to Stop Thumb & Finger Sucking

The number one thing to understand is that all the strategy in the world won't work unless your child wants to stop sucking their thumb or finger. There is no magic solution, silver bullet, or “simple trick” that will break a child’s finger habit for them! Breaking any habit requires willingness and dedication. Your child needs to be at a point emotionally and mentally where they are ready to participate in a habit breaking process. Therefore, your first priority is to get them to want to stop.

Make Them Think It's Their Idea 

Nagging your thumb sucker is frustrating for both of you. Instead, encourage him or her to realize how much she has grown and changed. Remind them of the “baby” things they no longer do. Point out that there is no longer a use for diapers, bottles, or high chairs. Let them know how proud you are of that.  Ask what else they think they will give up as they grow older. If he or she doesn't say thumb sucking, then you can gently suggest it. 

Letting your child know that you notice their positive actions are good too. "Hey, I noticed you didn't suck your thumb on the drive back from the grocery store. Great job - that is really big boy behavior! Would you like a sticker?" One of the most important parts of this process is to ground everything in positivity – positive reinforcement is the most effective way to change behavior. 

Once your child has decided they are ready to quit the habit, you can step in as their partner: you're there to help your child succeed. You will not be the evil parent forcing your will upon them – and maintaining this "partner" mindset will make them much more open to trying new tools or programs to help them stop. 

Tools for Helping a Child Quit Thumb Sucking

Whatever method you choose to use, be sure to base it on a POSITIVE APPROACH. In no way should your child be made to feel that this is a punishment or a result of "bad" behavior.

Thumbsucking is used like a security blanket or teddy bear.  It is a soothing mechanism that comforts us when we fall or when we are tired or scared.  If you force a young person to stop using it before they are mentally capable to deal with challenging situations without it  then you can actually make things worse.

Below are a collection of different tools that may be beneficial to you and your child, but these are in no way the only options available to you. If there is a different method that fits better with your family’s lifestyle - try it. If it works... fantastic! If you do find something else that works well, we'd love to hear about it – feel free to contact us and let us know so we can share your experience with other parents. 

No matter what you choose, though, it's important to discuss your chosen method with your boy or girl prior to beginning.  Review the list  on your own first, choose 2-3 that you think your child would do well with and present those 2-3 choices to your child.  Ask “which one do you want to do” and now they feel like they have the power since it’s their choice and you’re not telling them what to do.Here are a few methods we'd recommend considering:

  • Thumbuddy
  • Thumbguard
  • Medical wrap
  • My Special Shirt
  • Handaid
  • Nail polish
  • Mittens
  • Gloves
  • Homemade sock puppets
  • Control It
  • Thumbusters
  • Thumb Glove
  • Mavala

If the program isn't succeeding after 2-3 months, don't keep going – it's perfectly fine to stop. Simply tell your child that it seems as though “We” haven't started at the best time and that we are going to stop the program temporarily. Be sure to tell your child when the program will be started again. Be specific and clear on the new date, such as Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, or some other day that the child will recognize. Children love ritual and routine, so having a concrete understanding of the process will make everything easier. 

Generally, though, it's unusual for a program like these to fail. In rare cases, the habit may need to be dealt with through the counseling of other professionals, such as a psychologist or speech pathologist. This is not a sign of any mental illness – sometimes, thumb sucking is just a hard habit to break. 

Orthodontic Treatment to Stop Thumb Sucking in Scottsdale

Another option is to help your child stop thumb sucking using an orthodontic appliance. We can place a simple orthodontic appliance that comfortably, conveniently discourages thumb sucking without causing any pain. We'll remove the appliance after about 4-6 months, and most children never go back to thumb sucking again. For most children, this is an easy way to break the habit – just make sure to discuss it in detail with your child and bring them in for a consultation so we can all have a conversation about the appliance. 

The Calendar

No matter what method you chose, we recommend for your child to keep a calendar. He or she will keep track of days when sucking occurred and when it did not. In making the calendar, agree to a plan that is positive. An example might be a red sticker for a difficult day, a yellow sticker for a good day and a green sticker for a totally awesome day. Do not make a "good mark" for not sucking and a "bad mark" for sucking – too many “bad” marks can be defeating. 

Last of all, agree on a reward ahead of time such as a movie or game rental, a special lunch, or whatever is motivating to your child. After 30 consecutive days of no sucking, give your child the reward. The calendar will heighten your boy or girl’s awareness of what is usually an unconscious habit. It is impossible to stop a habit that one is not aware of. The reward is exactly that - a recognition of achievement.

Tips to Help Them Succeed

Ultimately, breaking the habit of thumb sucking is a process, and sometimes a difficult one. The most important thing is to keep everything positive and ensure your child understands that this isn't a punishment – it's just a normal part of growing up. Here are a few more tips for making the process as easy and successful as possible:

  • DO try to limit the time that your child sucks his thumb to his bedroom or in the house, not in public. Explain to him that this is a bed activity, during nap time and at night.
  • DON'T turn it into a confrontation. Don't tell your child, ‘You cannot suck your thumb anymore,' – instead, try to recognize him and praise him when he's not sucking his thumb, instead of criticizing when he is.
  • DO talk to your child about her thumb sucking or finger sucking. Help your child understand that when she is ready to stop, you will be there to help. She will eventually come to you and tell you, ‘Mommy, I don't want to suck my thumb anymore,' because you've empowered her to get there.
  • DON'T prohibit your child if he tries to suck his thumb or fingers after being hurt or injured. He needs to be in his comfort zone, and by not letting him go there you're only traumatizing him more. Breaking the habit is something you can both work on when your child is feeling healthy and happy. 
  • DO practice self-awareness with your child. When your child is sucking his thumb, ask him, ‘Do you know you are sucking your thumb now?' If he says no, help him recognize that and find another way to soothe.
  • Thumb and finger sucking is often linked to a blanket or stuffed animal. In order to make progress with the thumb, it may be wise to have the blanket or animal go on a “vacation” to the grandparents’ house for a while.
  • If you choose to use the nasty-tasting stuff that is marketed to stop thumb sucking and finger sucking, make sure you discuss it with your child. It's meant to be a reminder for them to not put their thumb in their mouth. It will not solve the habit on its own.
  • DO come up with creative ways to help them understand that they are growing up and one day won't suck their thumbs anymore. Ask your child, ‘Do you think Bob the Builder sucks his thumb?' Then they'll think about, and start to process whether they want to be sucking their thumbs anymore.
  • DON'T try a glove or a mitten on the hand as a quick-fix to thumb or finger sucking. They will likely just take it off. Use the glove, mitten, or sock puppet as a reminder tool, and combine it with a calendar for even better results.
  • DO find activities for idle hands. Thumbs and fingers tend to slip into the mouth when kids get bored, and that includes when watching TV or riding in the car. Try to encourage activities that engage the hands and keep them busy outside the mouth.

How To Stop The Pacifier

Another common habit that kids have trouble breaking is the use of a pacifier. Similar to thumb sucking, a pacifier is generally a comfort device for children, and many of the same tips and strategies apply for pacifier use as for thumb sucking. 

Tips & Warnings for Stopping Pacifier Use

Not all children are ready to wean from pacifiers at the same time. Some will take longer than others and for some, it will even seem like they just won't give up the fight. Be patient with your child and help them find ways to cope with the loss of comfort they previously got from their pacifier.

Also keep in mind that when you're raising a child, you'll get plenty of unsolicited, unhelpful advice. Unless the advice really resonates you, just smile and say, "Thank you, it's all sorted," and brush off the unwanted advice.

Generally, we'd recommend waiting until a time when life is fairly stable and happy for your child to wean them off the pacifier. If there's been a recent major change in the home, we suggest that families let some time pass so the toddler can handle the transition before the pacifier is weaned. Your toddler may need the comfort from the pacifier during the change.

Once you start the process, make sure you dig through toy boxes, dressers, and any other hidey-holes your child may have found and get rid off all the extra pacifiers. You may be surprised to find that your toddler remembers that one that rolled under the bed or that they dropped in the toy box when they come to see you with it tucked into their mouth.

Get your partner, other family members, and child care providers on board. To succeed in any major change you'll need the support of everyone who cares for your child.

How to Wean a Child Off a Pacifier

#1  The Slow Wean

The best way to get rid of a pacifier is to limit usage when they're an infant. This will help create less of an attachment to the pacifier in the future. Slowly wean your child off the pacifier, like you did the bottle or the breast. Remember that your child has formed an attachment to their pacifier and giving it up may not be easy for them.

Choose the times of the day when your child is least likely to want their pacifier and remove it from sight. When they ask for it, tell them that they can have it later. Try to reassure them that they are okay without it and move on to another activity.

Distract them with a snack or toy. To keep them from thinking about their pacifier, give them something else to do and avoid a fit or a fight that might make you feel like giving in to your toddler.

Gradually increase the times you refuse to give your child their pacifier until they no longer think about it. Bedtimes and nap times should be the last instances you wean your toddler off the pacifier, as they are probably the times your child will ask for it the most – at first, just focus on times when they're active or out in public.

Create a sticker chart with the days of the week on it. For every day they go without their pacifier, let them put a sticker on the chart and praise them for a job well done. If they ask for their pacifier during the day, let them know they will not get a sticker – but again, keep everything in a positive frame.

Get your toddler used to the idea of sleeping without the pacifier before removing it from them for good. Help them find other self-soothing methods, like hugging a teddy bear or sleeping with a special blanket.

#2  The Cold Turkey

If you choose to get rid of pacifiers by throwing them away or simply refusing to let your child have one, prepare yourself for a lot of crying. Remain calm, as you don't want to reinforce your child's crying by making them more upset with your own reaction. Remember that for them it may be scary to sleep without the soothing comfort of their pacifier.

Throw it out. Remove all pacifiers from your house in one swoop by throwing them in the trash. Take the trash out of the house. Do not buy more. We did this with our daughter when she was one year old. The first night was 45 minutes of crying. The second was 30 minutes of whining and the third night was peaceful.

I find that this method works best on infants 9 months to 1 1/2 years. It has been my experience that after 1 1/2 years the children have grown more emotionally attached to their pacifier and the resulting screams for the pacifier are much longer and much more intense.

#3  Active Involvement

I think this works best with older children. Discuss with your toddler that you think it's time to give up the pacifier. Explain to them that he or she is becoming a big girl or boy and that big girls and boys do not use pacifiers. You can say that pacifiers are not allowed at school or daycare.

Plan a specific date that the child knows and understands as the last day for a pacifier. Birthdays work well for this, since the pacifier can easily be "replaced" by gifts. Gifts that your child recognizes as signifying a transition to older childhood - such as a toy reserved for or identified with "big kids" - are also especially effective for this.

Get a gentle product like “Thumbuddy To Love-The Binky Fairy”. It helps children understand where the pacifiers go without the fuss or tears.

Let them be active in the timetable decision. It is important that your child feels as though they have some control over the situation. Get your child to decorate a shoe box to put the pacifiers in. On the chosen day have your child throw out the pacifier or go to the post office to mail in the decorated shoe box. Post them to other little babies that need them. 

You can also put them under the pillow or in a special place for the Binky Fairy. The Binky Fairy can come at night and exchange pacifiers for a prize similar to the Tooth Fairy. The Binky Fairy is always on the lookout for pacifiers – and if you'd like a little help, feel free to bring the pacifiers to our Scottsdale or Grayhawk pediatric dental office and we will exchange them for a special surprise.

#4  Selected Times Only

One helpful way to start the weaning process is to only let your child have the pacifier at bedtime and naptime. Instead of letting them run around with the pacifier in their mouth all day long, tell them it's only to be used when they're in bed.

Use a pacifier clip to attach the pacifier to the sheet of your child’s bed. If your toddler goes to their room to get the pacifier, explain to them that they can only have it if they're going to bed and ask them if they're ready for a nap or bedtime.

Start taking it off the bed and hiding it during the day. When your child stops returning to their room every day to spend time lying in bed with the pacifier, try taking it one step further and hiding it. When your child asks for it, tell them maybe it will be there for them later.

When your child stops asking about and looking for the pacifier during the day, start eliminating bedtime usage. Leave it hidden when they go to bed and only give it to them when they ask about it. Before long, you'll be able to say "Hey, you haven't asked about it in four days, how about we just go without it tonight?”

#5  The Pin Hole

Poke a pin hole in the tip of the pacifier. It will lose its suction and not work properly when your child sucks on it. This leads the child to think it is "broken," and some children will simply stop wanting it.

Some children will continue to want that pacifier – but don't worry, we haven’t failed. Every 3 to 4 days snip off a millimeter of the pacifier. Children will continue to use it until there is nothing left to hold in their mouths, and at this point most will just let it go.

#6  Read About It

Storytime is a wonderful time to cuddle with your kids and encourage a love of books and reading. But you can also use books to inspire the behavior you'd like to see and help kids deal with changes – such as giving up the pacifier.

Here are a few great books that can help your child give up using their pacifier:

  • The Thumbuddy line of storybooks (there are several in this series)
  • The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit
  • The Binky Ba-ba Fairy Little
  • Bunny's Pacifier Plan
  • Baby's Binky Box
  • Binky
  • Bye-Bye Binky
  • Bye-Bye, Pacifier (a Muppet Babies book)
  • I Want My Pacifier
  • No More Pacifier No More Pacifiers
  • Pacifiers Are Not Forever
#7 Gone But Not Forgotten

This comes from a wonderful family in our practice.  They went to Build-A-Bear and put the pacifier in the stuffed animal they built.  It was gone, but not forgotten.

Contact Your Shea, Grayhawk, & Scottsdale Pediatric Dentist

Breaking the habits of thumb sucking and using a pacifier can be difficult, but with commitment, the right techniques, and a positive mindset, you can make the process as simple and pain-free as possible. If you have more questions about breaking these habits or want to schedule an appointment for your child, we're always happy to speak with you. Feel free to contact us or request an appointment online at one of our offices. We can't wait to hear from you, and we're excited to help your child develop a great smile!