Finger Sucking, Thumb Sucking, Pacifiers and Language Development

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Parent Question

But I wanted to check in to see if you had any good resources on finger sucking. I’m gathering mixed info concerning when we should try and quit. My two year old is also having some trouble pronouncing some sounds but I’m not sure if it’s related to finger sucking or just because she is 2.

At this point I don’t really care if she sucks them at night and nap, but sometimes I wonder if she is using them too much during her awake time. If I call attention to taking them out it becomes a game and she sucks them more.

Should I even be worried about it yet? Thanks for taking the time to help me.

Our Answer

This is something I’ve been meaning to write about too! I think it’s such a hard thing to draw respectful boundaries with how the children use their body. So in terms of what sounds a two year old should be able to say and what sounds all two year olds don’t pronounce well you can look that up. This is a decent resource:

Onto the finger sucking. If you’re ready to draw a boundary I would sit down with Cora and just talk openly about it. I would say something like, “I noticed sometimes when you’re feeling upset or nervous you use your fingers to help you find calm. Sometimes you suck on your fingers when you’re playing too. It feels good to suck on your fingers?” Then I would point out that in your mouth you have spit and mouth germs that get on your fingers and spread the germs around and that it makes it hard to talk when you’re sucking on your fingers. Then I would say, “I’m thinking we should try a new plan and work on not using your fingers during play so that you can work on talking and keep all your mouth germs in your mouth.”

Depending on how much she is conversing and accepting you would want to find a way to talk about the other times you will still use your fingers for helping you calm. So “So if we aren’t using your fingers in play when will you use them?” Or “So at bedtime and nap you could suck on your fingers, maybe in the car seat, or during our cuddle time.” And she might resist but you can just say remember about how you need you mouth for talking and the mouth germs are getting on your fingers. Empathize, “I know it’s hard because you really like to suck your fingers, it feels good.” Then again depending on where she is in conversing you might ask, “How can I remind you when I notice you’re sucking on your fingers? Would you like me to say, ‘Fingers’ or ‘mouth germs’ or ‘it’s play time’ or ‘save your fingers for nap’, maybe we could come up with a secret reminder.” Then I would notice it when she uses her fingers and draw her attention to it as you have agreed.

Sometimes if a child is having a hard time dropping that habit I would prompt them to stop play and wash their hands to get the mouth germs off. Of course if what is most important in that moment to her is to suck her fingers she could do it in her safe place, bed, etc.

You should pretty quickly cut the finger sucking time down with just conscious reminders and a little encouragement. You can label emotions and encourage her to process that, “We met a new person and you were feeling a little nervous, you used your fingers and cuddled in close to me. When you’re feeling nervous you can take a deep breath.”

She might need some other skills for calming so be ready to do a bit more teaching there. In terms of when to stop the sucking completely I would say about four or five you can talk about it and say something if she hasn’t. I know at least one family that their four year old just said I don’t want to suck my thumb any more and they talked about how she might stop. She was only doing it at night so for a few weeks her mom held her hand as she fell asleep and gently reminded her.

Parent Reflection

I brought up the idea of mouth germs and she stopped sucking her fingers during the day in less than 2 days! Her dad and her were playing yesterday, and he was pretending to eat her hand.  She furrowed her brow and said “daddy don’t do that, now I have your mouth germs and I have to go wash now” as she walked toward the bathroom. We died laughing. Thank you for your help.

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