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My three and a half year old son recently started sucking his fingers and sometimes his clothing. When I point it out to him he takes his fingers out of his mouth, but they are soon back in. I can't think of anything that has changed in his life that would make him start doing this. How can I get him to stop?

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Tabasco sauce fingers? I know it works (via a relative who used it), though make sure it stays out of the eyes... maybe not the greatest idea... –  Chris Dec 24 '12 at 3:09
    
Not really a good idea. He already knows about putting bad tasting stuff on the fingers and resists. –  Yedida Dec 24 '12 at 7:50

4 Answers 4

It is one of those common things that distraction is an excellent cure first, like thumb sucking, or sucking the corner of a blanket.

Every time you do spot it, help by encouraging him to do something else, like cuddle a favourite teddy bear.

I have known people to use something that tastes bad, but I think Tabasco that Chris mentioned is a bit harsh.

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This question has been open for awhile, but I just stumbled upon it, so who knows, your three year old might be over it already and someone else might find it helpful. I have seen this before in several children, and it could be a coping mechanism to anxiety (that sometimes becomes a reflex and is no longer tied to the original anxiety producing stimulus).

Look for patterns in the finger sucking behavior. What time of day is it occurring? Is the child hungry, angry, scared, etc.? Is it possible that the child is anxious about an upcoming event in the day (daycare drop off, bedtime, etc.)? Sometimes it can be difficult to root out the cause, but taking a moment to pick up your child or hug them and ask them how they are feeling (using guiding questions like, "are you feeling upset?" "do you wish that you could stay up and play longer?") will get the fingers out of the mouth long enough to hear from the child and will teach the child how to verbalize their feelings rather than act on them.

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It's the Smallest Things...

I can't think of anything that has changed in his life that would make him start doing this.

Sometimes it's the craziest things and you wouldn't think of them at all. Try to talk it through with people who have another perspective.

A Quick Anecdote

I have a family relative who at something like 4 to 6 years old suddenly was afraid to go into his bedroom even though he didn't have a problem sleeping in it until then. But he didn't even express this fear. He was just more difficult around bedtime, took longer to fall asleep, etc... But never said he was afraid of something.

This started to puzzle the parents quite a bit, as they could sense something was off. Then one day they caught something they never had realized and couldn't believe it: their kid was now always entering his room walking backwards. You'd think that's noticeable, but it's not as straight-forward as you might think. He'd either go all the way back, or simply walk towards the door and then do a full rotation as he entered. They verified it happened systematically, and knew they were really on to something and talked to a professional. The child's psychiatrist figured out this was an unexpressed fear and his was either (which seems rather obvious presented like that, but wouldn't necessarily be if the child doesn't really whine about his room or say anything about not wanting to be in it, doesn't have nightmwares, etc...), and suggested it was probably due to a change in the surroundings, and that he may actually be turning his back to his surroundings. They looked even closer as the pattern repeated, but couldn't figure it out. Wasn't a particular toy, nor a design on a blanket, nor something he could see through a window.

It took a few more weeks until it suddenly hit them and they felt awful about it as it was simple if you didn't know the room before: the kid was simply afraid of the new wallpaper. They had changed the wallpaper on one wall of the room, it made him uneasy. And they didn't think of it because for one thing it's really in your face and you might miss such things when you look too close, but also they had been careful to pick it with the kid and he had seemed excited about it... which may explain why he didn't express his fear (guilt?).

It might be a very small thing that's hard to notice, or it might be a huge thing right in front of you but you're not looking with the right eyes.

For all you know, he just saw it in a movie/cartoon and figured he'd give it a shot.

Back to the Fingers

So, figuring out the trigger might be hard. But on the other hand, maybe there's no cause for alarm. I know of a kid who didn't suck on his thumb, but then sucked on 2 of his fingers later while twisting a curl of his hair with the other hand. The sucking last a bit but stopped before his teenage years... but the hair twisting thing somehow stayed until way longer, and basically only stopped when he cut his hair short in his 20s!

I know of another one who walked with a pacifier in his pocket until 6yo, which is way too late. He didn't use it anymore (don't remember when he stopped exactly, but a few years earlier), but he just wanted it for comfort. It was with him for some time. Then eventually in a drawer of his night-stand. And then it just became of one these family relics that you find when you open a dusty drawer one day.

Sucking on fingers worries us usually because of the impact on teeth and for a social stigma, but in the end if it's just a way for the kid to feel some comfort, maybe it's OK.

Both of these kids grew up to have nice teeth by the way (even perfect for one of them), and didn't suffer from a social stigma relating to these practices.

So maybe you could approach it another way. Rather than telling the child to stop, explain that its something that should only be done in private.

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My son started sucking his thumb at the age of two after we moved from our old town house to an apartment in a different city.

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Hi, Karen, and welcome to Parenting. Unlike forums, the Answer box is used to attempt to answer the question, not only to discuss and compare. If you can add information that can be helpful to the OP on how to stop this behavior, that would be very welcome. Otherwise this is what is considered a comment and might be changed to one. Please take a few minutes to take the tour and read the help section to familiarize yourself with this site. Again, welcome. –  anongoodnurse yesterday

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