This is a guest post written by Anne Venables, a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Orofacial Myologist. We met Anne when our daughter Mia was 4-years old and she helped her break her thumb sucking habit—in just a few days!
“Please, take your fingers out of your mouth.”
Has this request taken on added urgency at your house these days?
With the spread of COVID-19, we are all hyper-aware of how clean we are keeping our hands and what we are putting in our mouths. But, for children, hand and mouth often go together as well as peanut butter and jelly!
Why hand in mouth?
What is it about this connection that makes it so appealing? And what do we do about it?
Tiny babies, even babies in utero, put their hands in their mouths. Mouths are action centers for babies. But a baby’s mouth at 2 months of age is not the same as a baby’s mouth at 3 months of age or at 6 months of age and so on. The rapid change that happens in the mouth is amazing!
For example, before 1 month, an infant locates something to put in the mouth by using the rooting reflex. By 1 month of age, the rooting reflex is coming under control. By 2 to 3 months of age, baby can bring a toy to the mouth. By 5-6 months, an important stage of discriminative mouthing gets underway. At this point, baby begins to use the mouth to explore the world! New textures, new shapes, new toys, her toes, your fingers… it is all there to explore. So as early as 5-6 months, babies can begin to find ways to calm with mouthing toys or soft, solid food and even by taking sips of liquid.
The mouth as a way to calm
The book Nobody Ever Told Me (or my Mother) That by Diane Bahr provides this information and so much more. Diane points out in her book that most adults use sips of ice water or warm tea or a piece of gum instead of thumb or finger sucking. Taking sips of water and mouthing toys or soft food is a step in that direction for baby.
Be open to new possibilities
But what do you do if, like me, you didn’t know this information and your children are now focused primarily on sucking a thumb or a finger? Or what if they are biting their nails down to the quick? That deserves another blog, but much of this information still applies.
Well, if this is the case, I would say, “Forward, take the next step forward.”
Keeping in mind that as early as 5-6 months of age babies are prepared to chew and mouth objects, you can provide alternatives to thumbs and fingers and hands to mouths. Some good options for chewing are Chewy Tubes and ARK’s Grabbers.
Options for chewing and mouthing are age and child dependent. While mouths need to stay busy, hands need to be busy as well. Play is the child’s paradise and what better way to keep hands from mouth than to play. Start to look at fidget toys in a new light. And for older children, explore options such as bracelets, rings, putty, finger knitting…. The list is long.
When more is needed
What if the finger or thumb sucking habit is so entrenched that options like those I have suggested do not hold water? What if thumb or finger sucking seems to be the primary way of calming for your child?
First, understand that it makes sense. As your child sucks a thumb or finger, the brain produces enkephalins and endorphins that decrease neurotransmission. These enkephalins and endorphins create a deep sense of calm and even sleepiness. It might seem counter-intuitive to eliminate a source of calming right now but the benefits clearly outweigh any negatives. Thumb and finger sucking have a powerful effect on the growth of the palate and early help to eliminate the habit can reap big rewards.
Also, the impact of germs is huge. When I work with children who suck a thumb or fingers, I can usually identify 7 -10 reasons why it would be better to do something else.
The silver lining
And the surprising outcome from stopping thumb or finger sucking is that children feel better. They discover new ways of calming and are often more engaged, more interested in play, more talkative and yes, research shows, they sleep better!
So, if thumb or finger sucking is an entrenched habit, it is time to get professional help. Engaging in a program like mine to systematically and positively change the habit can be incredibly empowering. Kids feel like super-heroes and so they should!
Many have said that there are gifts to be found in this time at home. Moving away from hands to mouth is one of them!
Anne Venables is a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Orofacial Myologist in private practice in Boulder, CO.
She is now also meeting clients online with a creative approach to teletherapy. Anne is passionate about helping children to move on from digit sucking and nail biting in a positive, fun