Some of the more common treatments that are attempted by parents with or without the guidance of a professional include distraction, education, positive reinforcement, and avoidance therapy. If the child is sucking his or her thumb out of boredom or the need for comfort, a parent can help the child find another activity to distract from the sucking, or offer emotional comfort so that the child does not need to suck in order to feel loved. Many children who are old enough that thumbsucking is a concern are able to understand the reasoning behind why they should stop sucking, and teaching them about the dangers associated with it physically and socially can help them to quit. Positive reinforcement programs can include praise and rewards when children go without sucking for a certain amount of time.
Avoidance therapy can include using a bad-tasting topical application such as Stop-Zit on the thumb to make it unpleasant to suck on the fingers. (Oral Behaviors 1991) Professional methods may include aversive taste treatment with Stop-Zit, alarms that will sound when the child sucks on the thumb, and thumb posts or other prosthetics that would make it difficult or unpleasant to suck on the thumb. Of these methods, the thumb post was found in many studies to be the most effective form of therapy. (Allen & Watson 1993) Like the alarm, there are several options for awareness enhancement devices to be used in therapy. (Garlinghouse et al. 2003) Other contraptions that may be used include thumb-guards, which are wire devices put in the roof of the mouth to prevent thumbsucking. (Oral Behavior 1991) Finally, there are natural and homeopathic treatments that some people believe to be very effective, such as Saccharum. (Reichenberg-Ullman 2003)
An important factor to consider when treating thumbsucking is whether or not the child is ready to quit. If it is an empty habit, then using these kinds of methods of treatment may be effective. However, if thumbsucking is a symptom of another problem, such as stress or boredom, then the underlying problem must be treated, not just the symptoms. " if thumb sucking is caused by boredom, fatigue, frustration or unhappiness, treatment should be directed at rectifying the underlying problem." (Leung & Robson 1991) it is also necessary to assess the child's level of emotional maturity. Some children may be prepared to stop thumbsucking around the age of three, while others may not be capable of comprehending the need to stop until a slightly older age. (Franklin 2002) Many of the traditional therapy methods do not take these factors into consideration. Gentle guidance and education from the parent is an ideal option, especially if the parent allows the child to be involved in choosing the method used to break the habit. Aversive taste treatment is not a recommended treatment option, because the solutions used are actually dangerous if they get into the eyes (Franklin 2002), and can spread to make surfaces other than the thumb taste bad, which will make the treatment pointless. Alarms that sound when the child sucks on his or her thumb can be effective if the child wishes to quit and needs help being aware of when he or she is actually sucking. However, if the child does not want to quit, is not prepared to quit, or is emotionally unstable due to the stress associated with the social stigma of thumbsucking, the alarm can be nothing more than a cause of more guilt and stress, leading to more sucking for comfort. Thumbposts can be effective if designed safely and intelligently, but thumb guards that are put into the mouth can be very painful and lead to infections and dental problems themselves.
Perhaps the most appropriate way to approach thumbsucking is to provide a comfortable, nurturing, stimulating, and healthy environment for infants from the very beginning to prevent the child seeking finger sucking as comfort. "Regular sleeping and feeding prevent the cues of fatigue and hunger. Infants who are kept warm and comfortable with clean, dry diapers are less likely to become physically distressed. Sucking activity cannot rival the deep gratification of a parent's hugging, cooing, singing, and talking to the infant. A wide variety of colorful objects of various textures to touch and explore provide sensory experiences, keep the hands occupied, and limit digit sucking."
Allen, K.D. & Watson, T.S. (1993, July) Elimination of thumb-sucking as a treatment for severe trichotillomania. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 32.4, 830 (5).
Franklin, D. (2002, April) Don't just say no to thumb-sucking behavior. Pediatric news, 36.4, 32 (1).
Garlinghouse, M.; Miltenberger, R.; Stricker, J.; & Tulloch, H. (2003, February) Augmenting stimulus intensity with an awareness enhancement device in the treatment of finger sucking. Education & Treatment of Children, 26.1, 22(8).
Leung, a.K.C. (1991, November) Thumb sucking. American Family Physician. Retrieved November…