My little Peanut is a bona fide big girl. She’s six years old, a hair under 48″ tall, and can ride down all of the slides at the waterpark. She’s loving and sweet (90% of the time) to her little brother, Squeak. We’re so proud.
Peanut has changed so much since those early weeks when she was just a doe-eyed infant. But in one major and disheartening way, as we approached her sixth birthday earlier this summer, she was still very much that little baby girl: Peanut was still a thumbsucker. A very devoted one, too.
How we broke the habit
Four months ago, in May, we started breaking Peanut of her thumb habit, and it’s been a helluva ride. In her case, Peanut’s habit was very deeply seated. She sucked both thumbs, off and on throughout the day and during 100% of the night.
We knew it would be hard. And it was. There were tears, and more tears, and some were even Peanut’s. 😉 I can safely say that as of today, 84 days in, we are 95% of the way to the finish line, thanks in large part to a fantastic device called the TGuard.
If you’d like to buy your own without reading this whole post, you can do so just by visiting TGuard right now.
If you have a super-devoted not-remotely-casual thumb addict like my daughter, I hope our strategy (and the lessons we learned) will help you formulate your own war plan. WARNING: Put on your big kid panties, and button up your Bad-Ass Parent cape. You’ll need both. This isn’t for the faint of heart.
As I started writing, I realized this was going to be a suuuuuper long post, so I broke it into parts. Click the links to jump to a section.
- Part One
- Some background, including why we didn’t stop her thumb habit sooner.
- Part Two
- The tools we used in the process—what worked, and what got thrown in the garbage.
- Part Three
- What happened when we took her thumbs away, from Night One (aka The Exorcism) through present day.
Dive right in!
Judgy parents can exit stage right, kthx
If you’re throwing on your Judgey Parent cape right now, you can back off. I had big plans to be a hardass back when she was a baby. She started sucking her thumb at THREE MONTHS OLD, you guys.
I said, “Okay, we’ll make her stop at a year.” But she was such a good sleeper, soothing herself to sleep better than any other baby I knew. We couldn’t take her thumbs away from her—and I’ll be honest, we couldn’t bear to take her thumbs away from us.
The “first birthday” milestone became two, then three years… by age four, we were looking for reasons to delay the agony of breaking the habit.
See? The doctor said so.
Thankfully, the dentist backed us up: “Her teeth are fine. It’s okay for her to continue. Most kids stop on their own after age 4,” she said.
It was welcome permission to delay any draconian “No More Thumbs” strategies—and I was the last person who wanted to take drastic measures to make her stop. I was a thumbsucker. So was my dad. I only stopped when my parents, around age 3, put the “Yucky Stuff” (now called Mavala Stop, though I’ve no idea what it was called in the 1980s) on my thumb.
I don’t have many clear memories from age 3, but that first night of “Yucky Stuff” is seared into my mind like an Inside Out-style core memory. It was traumatic.
As a thumb stand-in, I started biting my nails, and 33 years later, I’m still trying to fully kick that habit. 🙁
After her fourth birthday, Peanut’s top two front teeth had to be pulled because of trauma. Her thumbsucking was even easier with no front teeth in the way. Her fifth birthday came and went. We hoped she’d bow to peer pressure in Kindergarten, but no such luck. She’d suck at school during quiet time, or when she was sad, bored, or hungry. Social stigma be damned.
We started gently priming Peanut that the End Days of Thumbsucking were nigh. They would come in the form of—gasp!—Permanent Teeth.
Cue the major parent fail.
I don’t know how we screwed it up so badly, but we did. After all those months of warning her about her top teeth, neither my husband nor I realized that her bottom teeth would be first, not the top. Just like when she was a baby.
In May, three months before her sixth birthday, the bottom front teeth began to wiggle. A few days later they were out (she pulled both all on her own!), and hot on the heels of those first Tooth Fairy visits, two bumpy-ridged center incisors were peeking out.
“Oh, s**t,” I said.
“Oh, s**t,” my husband said.
We. Were. Not. Ready.
There were no more excuses. Let the habit-breaking begin.
Strategy #1: Thumbusters
Because of my own trauma with the Yucky Stuff, and the fact that Peanut threw up when I put it on her several years earlier, the nasty-tasting nail polish was off the table as a primary strategy. Instead, we started with one of the products our dentist recommended: Thumbusters.
On the upside, they’re not horribly expensive. On the downside, they’re easily removed by a kiddo, not very durable, and they don’t actually make one’s thumbs unavailable for sucking.
The first night Peanut wore the Thumbusters, I snuck into her room after she fell asleep and found her like this:
Thumb in mouth. The Thumbuster wasn’t doing a damn thing. URGH. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet.
The next morning, I dipped the Thumbusters in white vinegar, then dried them. At bedtime, we put them on again and she immediately started to complain. “Mommy, these taste funny.”
I played dumb. “Hmm, I don’t know why they would. It’s probably nothing. Don’t suck your thumb, sweetie,” I said, trying to act like the weird taste was NBD (no big deal). She looked at me strangely, but didn’t protest further.
An hour later I peeked in on her and saw a repeat of the night before: thumb squarely in mouth. Thumbuster be damned.
The next day, I went nuclear on the vinegar. I didn’t just dip them in vinegar, I marinated them for two hours. That night, she complained again about the taste, but eventually quieted down and fell asleep. I snuck in for a checkup.
Sure enough, she was sucking away. I took her thumb out of her mouth while she slept, and she unconsciously replaced it with the other one. Unfazed.
The next morning when she awoke, she took them off and left them on her bed. Our miniature schnauzer chewed off the tips of both Thumbusters. The lycra is thin, and apparently our dog loooooooooves the taste of vinegar (who knew?). I threw what was left of them in the trash.
Strategy #2: The TGuard
This was the second option our dentist suggested, and I’d delayed trying it for a reason: each TGuard Aerothumb was FIFTY FRIGGIN’ BUCKS. I bit the bullet and purchased two, crying on my keyboard as I shelled out $104 for my kid’s bad habit.
(Repeat after me: “It’s cheaper than braces, it’s cheaper than braces, it’s cheaper than braces.”)
TGuard has some big advantages over Thumbusters:
- The kid can’t take it off. The thumb guard is secured by what I call a “waterpark bracelet”—one of those plastic snap-in bracelets that you can’t pull off—you have to cut it off with scissors.
- It takes the fun out of thumbsucking. The TGuard website explains it better than I can: “When the child wears a thumbguard, a space, or gap, is present between the thumb and the tube part of the device, allowing air to pass through. Your child tries to suck his thumbs, but instead, will get air, as if they are sucking on a straw…. When there is no suction… there is no pleasure.”
Note that there are two models of TGuard: The “TGuard Classic” (older model) and the “TGuard Aerothumb” (newer model).
- Ergonomics. Both are made from soft and flexible plastic, but the Classic is less ergonomic, and many users report that it’s less comfortable as a result. What’s soft and flexible plastic? Think of the nipples on baby bottles—that’s the stuff the TGuard is made from.
- Ventilation. Aerothumb has ventilation openings in thumb part and in the plastic that goes around the wrist. Classic does not, which some reviewers report makes the kiddo’s hand/wrist sweaty.
- Cost. Classic is $10 less than Aerothumb.
Trust me when I say that you should spring for the Aerothumb. Items #1 and #2 in particular matter more than you think. A kiddo breaking the habit is already uncomfortable, so why make it worse with stiff plastic and sweaty hands?
Start shopping for your very own TGuard now.
The TGuard also comes with a great instruction booklet and a reward chart. I needed all the strength I could get, and the TGuard instructions said exactly what I needed to hear. I’m paraphrasing, but this stuck with me: ‘Think of thumbsucking as an addiction, and keep in mind how humans—even adults—react to removal of their addictive substance. That’s how your child may be feeling.’
I thought they were being overdramatic.
I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Operation No-More-Thumbs, Night One
Earlier that day, we let Peanut choose her reward: 30 nights of thumb guard and she got a bouncy house party with unlimited friends. We even pulled up the local inflatables rental place online and I let her pick the exact bouncy house she wanted ($265 for the rental, but still… cheaper than braces). She was super excited and ready for her first night of no thumbs. She sat still as we put on the TGuards and clicked the bracelet-lock into place. Nathan and I tucked her in and said goodnight, then held our breath as we left her.
For as long as I can remember, Peanut has always fallen asleep quickly. Once she’s in bed, she zonks out in a flash, often in as little as two minutes. It’s astonishing. She rarely comes back out of her room after being tucked in.
That night, about 15 minutes later, her door opened and she emerged slowly. She walked up to me and stopped, then burst into tears, crumpling to the floor.
“How am I ever going to fall asleep?!” she sobbed.
My heart broke for her. I took her on my lap and we looked together at her bouncy house on the inflatable website. Her crying didn’t slow at all. Instead, she grew more agitated.
It escalated from there. Within 15 minutes, we were in the midst of what can best be described as an all-out exorcism.
There was kicking, hitting, and crying. Spitting. Head-butting. Ear-splitting screams. Begging. Bargaining.
She was biting us, sinking her teeth into our wrists and arms as we tried to keep her from ripping the TGuards off. (She couldn’t get them off, but she was willing to mutilate herself to try… so as she attempted, the waterpark bracelets were biting into her wrists. Plus, I wasn’t sure how much force the TGuards could endure before they broke. Answer: a lot.)
At one point I was on my back on Peanut’s bedroom floor, my arms wrapped tight around her chest and legs around her lower body as I struggled to keep her from harming herself. She was behaving like a heroin addict with DT’s, just like the instructions warned. I stared at the ceiling, thinking. We waited waaaaaaaaay too long to do this.
After over an hour of World War III, I finally calmed her with the promise of a full-body massage. It took 20 minutes of soothing touch, but finally, blessedly, she drifted off to sleep.
The entire ordeal, from tuck-in to tip-toeing out of her room, had lasted almost 90 minutes.
An hour later, she stirred in her sleep, and it started all over again. I scooped her up and carried her into our bed, booting Nathan to the couch. I whispered soothingly as she cried, begging me to take off the thumb guards. She drifted off to sleep again while I rubbed her legs, arms, and back.
Over the course of the night, she woke several times, whimpering and crying. It was heartbreaking, and I was exhausted. It was like having a newborn again. I likened it to sleep training, and reminded myself that if I was strong now, I wouldn’t have to do it again later.
Nights Two through Four: Pfft, This is Easy!
If Night One was a 10 on the crazy scale, the next three nights were a 1. She barely complained at all, and we didn’t even have to fight to get the TGuards on her each night. I did, however, have to give her a rather lengthy full-body massage at bedtime to help her fall asleep.
I was worried that we’d simply replaced her thumb with a massage from Mom, and I started to wonder how I was going to exit stage right from my new role as Official Mommy Sleep Aid.
We adjusted our strategy slightly to combat her during-the-day thumbsucking. She was waaaay too embarrassed to wear the TGuards at daycare (she was in a summer program). We compromised by putting a tiny dot of Yucky Stuff on her thumbnails. She was OK with it the first day, but as soon as she had her first accidental taste (while licking ketchup off her fingers at lunch), she started to fight us on the dots of Yucky Stuff.
Instead, we applied the Yucky Stuff while she was asleep. For some reason, if she didn’t see us applying it, she was much less pissed off. She knew it was there as soon as she accidentally licked her thumb or tried to bite at her cuticles. But she didn’t seem to mind so much.
We were positively cruising toward that Bouncy House party. But then came Night Five.
Night Five: Exorcism, the Redux
Just before bedtime, she started to beg for “a night off” from her thumb guards. The TGuard instructions clearly say “Do not let the child engage in thumb or finger sucking for a single moment after you begin treatment,” so we knew this was a no-go. Cue Exorcism #2.
We tried to reason with her, including threatening to rescind the bouncy house party. Nothing worked. We ended up pinning her down—I had to actually sit on her torso—while Daddy pinned her arms and I wrestled the TGuards on and locked in the bracelets. My leg drifted too close to her mouth at one point and SHE F***ING BIT ME and drew blood. I made Daddy do the massage that night, I was so pissed.
Night Six: Early Riser
She put the TGuards on without complaint, but asked that we not put the dots of Yucky Stuff on after she was asleep (presumably because she planned to suck her thumb when we weren’t around during the day). It was taking her a loooooong time to fall asleep—at least 45 minutes each night. That’s normal for Squeak, but not for Peanut.
She woke at 5:45 a.m. the next day—a SATURDAY, FFS—which was the first of several freakishly early wake-ups. Thanks, Obama.
Nights 7-12: Two Steps Forward
For most of this time period, she didn’t complain about the TGuards, but struggled to fall asleep and woke every day before 6:00 a.m. I decided to try diffusing lavender essential oil in her room at bedtime, even though I generally think essential oils are a crock of $hit. I was desperate. To keep her from sucking during the day, we applied dots of Yucky Stuff to her thumbnails after she was asleep.
Night 13: Unlucky
She threw a huge fit at bedtime, so once again we had to hold her down to wrestle the TGuards on. In a repeat performance from Night Five, she bit me again. After she finally settled, she came out of her room crying, claiming one hand was too tight and was hurting her, even though both hands were exactly the same tightness. I cut one bracelet off, gave her a long massage and told her some stories, then slipped the TGuard back on mid-massage. She drifted off soon after.
During the day, we were still catching her popping her thumb in absent-mindedly. She would get a taste of Yucky Stuff and start spitting (usually on the carpet, URGH), so we could always hear when it happened, even from across the house.
Nights 14-20: Whiny and Earlier Bedtime
Her only meltdown during this stretch was a single night when she lost it after we’d already put one TGuard on. We once again had to pin her down, and this time she pinched my inner bicep really hard. You know, that tiny-grip pinch that hurts way worse than a normal pinch? I instinctively grabbed her hand to make her stop, which hurt her, and she got really mad at me. A little massage got me off her Shit List. After that, we tried an earlier bedtime, which helped a lot. Even though it’s hard as hell to go to bed early in June, when it’s light outside past 9:00 p.m.
Night 21-26: Small Signs of Progress
Around this time we started noticing that she wasn’t sticking her thumb in her mouth at all during the day. YIPPEE!By night 26 we didn’t even need to use the locking bracelets anymore, because she didn’t try to take off the TGuards at night. AWESOME.
She did declare that there would be no more lavender diffused in her room. She’d grown to hate the smell, and put her foot down.
Nights 27-31: On Vacation
Peanut was super resistant to wearing the TGuards away from home (she didn’t want anyone, especially her cousin, to see them in her suitcase), so we gave her the option of just Yucky Stuff. She said yes, and did great, with no thumbsucking and no complaining.
We realized that we hadn’t seen her put her thumb in her mouth in a LONG time.
Night 34: Regression
After a successful stay at Grandma’s with no TGuards or Yucky Stuff (we forgot it, whoops!), we didn’t put anything on her thumbs. I busted her sleeping soundly, thumb squarely in her mouth, so I snuck the TGuards on while she slept.
Night 42: Yucky Stuff is No Longer Yucky
We caught her sucking her thumb in the middle of the night, despite the fresh dots of Yucky Stuff. We were back to sneaking on the TGuards after she had fallen asleep. Dammmmmiiiiiiiit.
Night 51: No More Sneaking (thank goodness)
Because waiting for her to fall asleep had become a pain in the ass, we finally convinced her to put the TGuards on before she fell asleep at night. By Night 51, she was allowing us to put them on at bedtime without complaining, and without using the locking bracelets.
Night 51 through 80: (Mostly) Smooth Sailing
Since late July, we’ve been in a pretty good stretch, with just a few speedbumps along the way. One of us (usually Mommy) puts on her TGuards at bedtime. If we forget, she reminds us.
In late August, the stomach flu hit, so I took off Peanut’s TGuards for the night. She slept in my bed with me, and I caught her sucking her thumb in her sleep. The next day, we busted her sucking twice while she was watching TV. (It’s amazing how quickly her brain returned to the habit!) She tearfully asking us why her brain was still telling her to suck her thumb when she had been working so hard for so long (awwww).
From Here to The Six-Month Mark
We visited the dentist last month, and she praised Peanut’s hard work, and ours too.
“Nice job, Mom. Remember, she needs to wear them at night for six months, at least, or she’ll go right back to it,” she explained.
I was surprised. The TGuard instruction booklet mentioned 30 days, and although we were easily at day 50 by that point, I didn’t think we were going to be doing the TGuards for six whole months.
Start the countdown to Night 180.
“Where the Hell are the Thumb Guards?!”
Along the way, we did have a frustrating problem with Peanut hiding the TGuards, or losing them completely.
They’re clear plastic, so they are hard to find. She’d wake up, take them off, and then promptly forget where she’d put them: inside her pillowcase, under the bed, tangled up in her sheets, in her school backpack (considering it was summer break, that one was weird), in her brother’s room, in the bedside table next to my bed, and in her underwear drawer. And oh yes, that one day when we found them IN THE TRASH CAN.
Peanut insisted she’d been half-asleep and had just tossed them in the trash with the bracelets. After that, we established an official location for the TGuards to go every morning. (They also needed to be hidden, in case Peanut had a friend over. She’s super embarrassed about having to wear them at night.)
The Reward: A Bouncy House Party
Peanut hit 40 days of no thumbsucking easily, and despite a few small roadblocks along the way, we still let her have the Bouncy House Party. I wasn’t allowed to tell any of the friends exactly what we were celebrating—Peanut was too embarrassed—but I did tell the other parents when Peanut was out of earshot. I was proud of her progress!
Over the course of a weekend, nearly 15 friends and their families came over to enjoy it. We hooked up a hose and filled the splashdown pool, and the kiddos slid into that pool over and over. Both kids slept extremely well that weekend.
Mama’s Big Girl
It’s been a ride these past few months. Every time I thought the hard part was behind us, something would pop up and we’d be right back to the struggle.
It’s definitely not easy, but it can be done.
It’s you against your child’s brain, mama. So put on your Super Parent cape, and get to work. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be done.
*Prices were accurate as of September 1, 2018, but I can’t vouch for future price fluctuations, sorry!