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How Can You Stop Your Toddler
From Sucking His Thumb?

QUESTION: I have a son who is 23-months-old and still sucking his thumb. I would like to get him to stop. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Sucking is a soothing activity for babies and young children. Your son sucks his thumb because it is a primary way that children of this age make themselves feel safe and secure. If you do not want him to suck his thumb, perhaps you could offer him a pacifier, even a bottle, a favorite blanket or a toy to hold onto that offers him a sense of security and soothing. These items are called "transitional" objects by child psychologists, because they help a child internalize or replicate the love they feel from their parents.

Be aware that boys are often shamed out of pacifiers, or sucking of any kind, earlier than girls because it acknowledges dependency. But boys, like girls, need soothing. And sucking is a primary reflex that nature provides for both emotional and physical (feeding) nourishment early in life. Frustrating his need to suck can set him up for nail biting or other nervous habits later.

Your son's thumb sucking does not mean that he is suffering undue insecurity. But denying him the ability to satisfy his sucking needs may also prevent him from developing the capacity to soothe himself. Still, it would not hurt to look at the bigger picture to see if your son is in the midst of any transitions or situations that might cause him to feel insecure.

Consider indulging your son's needs for sucking a pacifier or having a bottle of juice once or twice during the day. You may be surprised at how quickly he will be willing to relinquish his thumb for a substitute. Do not worry, he will give up the pacifier when he is ready. Three to four years of age is a common time for sucking activity to subside and be replaced with other comforting aids such as favorite toys, dolls or action figures.

There is always an overlap in the transition from sucking to holding (toys) for soothing. So it is wise to identify and encourage your child to adopt favorite toys that you know bring him that special solace.

Sleeping with these comfort toys, and taking them with him when he is separated from you, may reduce his need for sucking. He may also benefit from increased daily cuddling when the opportunity arises, such as when you are watching a video with him, or reading a book together.

Rest assured, he will grow up soon enough! But remember that none of us ever outgrows the need for soothing. This (sucking) activity is an essential part of his development toward greater independence. Successful self-soothing now is the foundation for enabling him to cope with adversity later.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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