Saturday, October 20, 2007

Adventures in Thumb-Sucking

Leah sucked her thumb in utero. I actually got to see her do it using ultrasound at only 5mos pregnant. When she was born she never took a pacifier, but self-soothed with her own thumb from the first. No other child before or since has naturally thumb-sucked. Just to clarify, the "no other child" includes my son.

Caleb was 13mos old when Leah entered the world. Not very big. He had used a pacifier for bedtime, but when he started chewing them like teethers, and creating daily choking hazards for himself, we removed them altogether. So when Leah joined him in his room she sucked her thumb, and he sucked nothing. Naively I thought Leah's penchant for her thumb would not affect Caleb. I was wrong. At 18mos Caleb began imitating Leah. By two he was a full-fledged thumb-sucker. And at three Christopher and I began to wonder how this whole weaning thing was going to work. Unlike Leah, who sucks her thumb for bedtime and when she is especially tired, Caleb sucked his thumb whenever there wasn't something already occupying his hands, and even then he often tried anyway.

When Caleb turned four, and there was no stopping in sight, we decided it was time to take some action. Like other naive parents we started with the simple discussion of, "Now that you are FOUR buddy, you don't need to suck your thumb. Daddy doesn't suck his thumb, and if you want to be a man like Daddy you will need to stop sucking yours." I laugh aloud at the foolishness of this attempt. Caleb stared at us, nodded his head in absolute agreement that he was big, he did want to be like Daddy, and then stuck his thumb in his mouth. For the first several weeks we called his attention to this action every time we saw him do it. But pretty soon we sounded like drill instructors barking orders every other minute.

"Caleb, get your thumb out of your mouth."
"Caleb, thumb!"
"Caleb, you are sucking your thumb."
"Caleb, stop it!"

Something else was needed.

One day in Walgreen's I spotted a little bottle of fingernail polish in the baby section. As I inspected it closer I realized it was an aid for breaking the habit of thumb and finger sucking. You painted this nasty tasting solution on your child's nails, and when they stuck the offending digit in their mouth they were met with a pungently bitter taste as a reward. Perfect. I bought the ridiculously overpriced gimmick and went home. I immediately painted Caleb's thumbs with my new solution and sat back to watch it work wonders. I even painted my own nail to see how badly it really tasted. Yuck! It was pretty bad. The problem, as even I could recognize as a non-thumb-sucking-bystander, was in the longevity of the taste. Namely an almost instantaneous diminishing of the bitterness the moment it started performing its task. Caleb made a face, made another face, then sucked his thumb quite happily. Back to the drawing board.

I tried taping his thumb to his fingers, which indeed kept him from thumb-sucking, but that was only reasonable at bedtime when he didn't need his opposable thumbs to function. And, as I said before, Caleb quite took to thumb-sucking when he finally decided it was for him. This was no amateur habit relegated to bedtime stories and cuddly blankets. Taping, it became apparent, would not be the fix.

Then I saw an ingenious little device called a "Thumb Guard" in a catalog I receive. I read the blurb, somewhat skeptical but nevertheless intrigued by the concept. The price tag was enough to make me seriously question its purchase, but when you become desperate... well, you know the saying. I bought it.

We told Caleb about our purchase. He was pretty excited, if only from the recognition that this might get his Mama and Daddy off his back! We waited expectantly for the package to arrive, and when it did we gathered as a family to fit him with his thumb-guards for the first time.

The concept is very simple. The tube breaks the vacuum, the pleasure deriving sensation created by thumb-sucking. So while it doesn't stop the action itself it does render the action pleasureless, and in theory breaks the habit out of removing the reason for it in the first place. One of the main selling points to me was that you placed the guards on the thumbs, and left them there 24/7. It didn't matter if he was settling down for the night, or playing on the trampoline, the guards protected his thumbs from the smallest breach in his own resolve (which was as rock solid as tissue paper). The box advertised results in as little as one week, with most children completely free from thumb-sucking in 14 days.

It would be a lesson in understatement to say it took Caleb a bit longer.

Week One: 24/7
Week Two: 24/7. We see no noticeable deceleration of sucking when given the opportunity to go without the guards.
Week Three: 24/7
Week Four: 24/7. During this week the unthinkable happens and one of the guards breaks! We paid far too much money to have it break after only 3+ weeks of instructed use. While we wait for the replacement we see the reality of Caleb's dedication in this matter - namely, none.
Week Five: Our replacement finally arrives and we are back to 24/7.
Week Six: Christopher and I decide it is time to up the ante, and tell Caleb that he will get a skateboard when he stops sucking his thumb completely. For the first time we see real sparks of interest for this little game his Father and I are playing. "You mean a real skateboard? A Spiderman skateboard?" Spiderman? Where did that come from? No time to stop and think now though because the answer could make or break this deal. "Yes, a Spiderman skateboard!"
Week Seven: We move the wearing to bedtimes only, and Caleb seems to be actually working at it during the day. We still have to remind him occasionally, but by-and-large he is free from day sucking.
Week Eight: Another broken guard. Unbelievable!!! We are able to continue using the defected one until the replacement arrives, so we don't have to stop training. The mantra in our house becomes, "Caleb, you want your Spiderman skateboard don't you?"
Week Nine: Wasn't this supposed to work within 14 days? I ask my prayer partner to lift this up in her devotion time. I start praying with Caleb each night that he would lean on Jesus for all his needs, including whatever security he derives from thumb-sucking.
Week Ten: We buy the skateboard and hide it in the garage.
Week Eleven: WILL THIS NEVER END?????
Week Twelve: We pull the skateboard out and let Caleb see it. He can't step on it, ride it, do anything much more than touch it, but we feel like he might need to see the thing to get him over the final hurdle. We put it on a shelf in his room, so he can see it during bedtime and be reminded of the reward.
Week Thirteen: We take the thumb-guards off and watch him like a hawk. He seems to be fine during the day, but is he unconsciously putting his thumbs in his mouth during nap and bedtime? We check him multiple times throughout the following few nights. No thumb-sucking. Could it be that he is finally broken of the habit?

On October 4th Daddy, holding the Spiderman skateboard, shares the news that Caleb has DONE IT! He has stopped sucking his thumb completely, and has earned his reward!

He loves his new skateboard, and rides like a champ!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:32 PM

    Your story had me cracking up! I have a 3 year old who loves his thumb and has no desire to let it I am about to embark on the removal of his favourite comfort object...fingers crossed!