Breaking the habit: How to stop kids sucking thumbs, clothes and hair

Kinderling News & Features

Is your kid a little sucker? Whether it’s their thumb, clothes or hair, it can be an annoying, antisocial habit that parents are keen to stop!

This week two Kinderling mums asked Kinderling Helpline consultant Mothercraft nurse Chris Minogue how to stop kids from sticking things in their gob. Natalie’s six-year-old chews his clothes, while Bec’s five-year-old sucks her thumb.

Chris recognises it’s a hard habit to break as “they usually do it when they’re tired, sitting in front of the television or concentrating on something else.”

 “Lots of people will tell you to put lots of yucky tasting things on their thumb,” Chris says. “Usually, they just get around that and suck something else.”

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Instead, it’s important to change the behaviour and Chris gives these three easy steps to keep their mouth free for food.

1. Find the root cause

“The first thing I would do is make sure there isn’t any underlying anxiety,” says Chris.

Perhaps they're worried or have a little trouble when playing with others at school, and it comes out in this nervous action.

Communicate with school teachers, early educators and other carers to see if it’s happening at school or day care when you’re not around.

“Have a good talk with his/her teacher,” Chris recommends. “Get them to observe them in play, because it might be happening in the friendship side of things.”

2. Use gentle distraction

Every time the action occurs, instead of telling your child not to do it, distract your child from the behaviour.

“You need to spend a few days,” Chris says. “Every time they go to suck and chew on something, we very gently take their hand and bring it down.”

It’s a good idea to hold their hand once down too, or put toys or a puzzle in their hand to focus on.

3. Be consistent

Of course, you can only distract while you’re around them, so with older children that go to day care or school, it’s impossible to keep an eye on.

Ensure that carers don’t insist on how wrong it is to your child. To maintain consistency, ask teachers to emulate your diversion strategy. With this constant method, they will stop over time.

Chris says it’s likely the habit will continue in bed, but that is much harder to stop and will also reduce in time as your little one grows.