My daughter discovered her thumb as a soother when she was around 3 weeks old and in the beginning I was glad that she did. As I have mentioned earlier my daughter was a high needs baby and it was extremely difficult to soothe her. Believe me, I tried it all. Milk, rocking, lullabies, swaying, baby swing, wearing the baby, etc. but nothing would work once she got worked up.
So when she started using her thumb as a soothing mechanism, I was relieved and it did give me a break on those sleepless nights. She looked so cute sucking her thumb away to glory and sleep that it never occurred to me to make her stop.
But very soon the mommy guilt kicked in and I thought I was taking a shortcut which might end up harming my child in the long run. I decided that the thumb-sucking habit had to be kicked. But my little thumbsucker had other plans, every time we would try to remove her thumb she would cry bloody murder and wail ravenously. We tried giving a pacifier to her but she knew the difference and would not take it.
After a few disasters I decided to give up (*hangs head in shame*). The only solace was that she would suck her thumb only when she was feeling sleepy and would remove it once she was in deep sleep.
Time passed and her thumbsucking became a part of her that no longer disturbed me. Why? Because I read that Thumb sucking is a natural reflex and a comforting process for babies and most kids stop this naturally by the age 4-5. Sam never sucked her thumb during the day and only did it when she was feeling wound up and wanted to sleep. And did I mention how cute she looked ?
What made me rethink?
A few months ago I started noticing that her teeth were slightly getting pushed to the front. It was just about visible to me but enough to make me concerned. I found that kids who used thumb sucking as a way to fall asleep would find it much more difficult to stop as the habit was more on a subconscious level.
I also read that although any effect on the teeth might be negated once the milk teeth fall off, however if the jaw structure is altered due to the pressure of thumb sucking, the teeth will never be perfectly aligned in the future and it can also cause changes to the roof of the mouth.
I started noticing that the thumbsucking was now happening on a more random level. Now Sam not only sucked thumb when she was sleepy but also when she was feeling bored. If I would not involve her in continuous activities she would happily while away time sucking her thumb.
The biggest motivator to actively try to make Sam stop the thumbsucking came from her only. She was once teased by some older kids for sucking her thumb and she told me that she did not want to be the baby anymore.
Methods we tried
Used a reward system
I told Sam that if she tried to not suck her thumb at night she would be given a surprise at morning. She tried for a while but the inclination was so strong that she gave in.
Covered hands with gloves
Didn’t work at all, she would grow all fussy and would remove the gloves herself. It might work on younger babies though.
I was told that there is an ayurvedic herb which is bitter in taste and used to wean children off breast milk. I tried applying it on her fingers but she couldn’t feel the taste and this experiment too failed.
Finally I found out about Mavala Stop, a liquid which is usually used in children and adults to stop nail biting but is also recommended for thumb sucking. As it is not available in India, I got it from United Kingdom through someone who was travelling from London to India. (Priced at around £7 )
It is a transparent, non-toxic and a distinctively bitter tasting (ask me how I know!!) liquid. It is applied as a nail polish on the nail in just one single coat. A single coat is effective for 3-4 days after which you need to remove the initial coat with remover and apply again. Do not use it for children under three years old because their taste buds have not evolved yet to decipher a bitter taste.
Once we decided to use Mavala Stop, I came clean with Sam. I had prepared her mentally beforehand telling her that Mama is getting a medicine which will help her stop her thumb sucking. When it arrived, I showed her the package and the bottle. I did not apply it on the sly and when I applied it on her thumb we talked about how bitter it was and she should try to keep her thumb away from her mouth.
For the first time in almost three years, Sam fell asleep without her thumb and I thought it was a miracle. But when she woke up during sleep and tried to soothe herself back to sleep using the thumb, the bitter taste made her miserable. She cried all night long and I cried with her.
It was very difficult for me to watch her suffer like this and I almost thought I should remove the liquid and let it go. But somewhere the fact that this was just the beginning of many more difficult decisions I might have to take as a parent for the well-being of my child made me go on.
We had two very difficult nights with hardly any sleep and lots of crying but on the third day it magically became normal. Sam stopped sucking thumb altogether and did not fuss at night at all. She even reminded me to reapply the medicine once the bitter taste had gone after a few days.
We have had just one relapse in the last four weeks and I have not applied the medicine for the past two weeks. The medicine helped her in breaking the subconscious thought that she could only sleep with the help of thumbsucking. Her teeth are looking great, she feels that she has achieved a big milestone and I feel happy knowing that I helped my child overcome a habit which might have hampered her in the future.
If you have a thumbsucking child and want to help them kick the habit, remember not to yell or make them feel bad. If the child is ready to stop I would highly recommend using the first three methods first and if they don’t work you can try Mavala Stop (but only under your doctor’s guidance).