Stop the Madness: Breaking the Lovey, Thumb Sucking, Pacifier Habit

I am the mother of two kids: a four year-old who sucks his fingers and twirls my hair (his own when I’m not around) and a 21 month-old who has a blanket that isn’t more than a foot away from her at all times. My son has been sucking his fingers since he was two weeks old–I kid you not. And, the habit never really bothered me–until things like the swine flu hits or, the fact that he’s getting closer to kindergarten. As for my daughter, that blanket has been a lifesaver in too many different ways, but I am dreading the day when I tell her it can’t come out of her room. So, how does a parent stop these habits? What may seem like a hopeless and daunting task, CAN be done. Breezy Mama turns to Dr. Frances Walfish, Psy.D. for some help.

It seems to me as if children hang on to five things: a bottle, a pacifier, finger/thumb sucking, hair twirling and a lovey. Should all be stopped?

Eventually all of these habits should be stopped.  And they will.  Let’s first begin by understanding why these things are helpful and good.  They are all Transitional Objects (T.O.).  T.O.’s are encouraged with newborns to help the infant self-soothe when he or she is not touching Mommy’s skin (for example when baby is in her crib falling asleep).  All of the above things you list are encouraged except for hair twirling which I advise against. Fascination with Mom’s hair (then with their own) usually begins during breastfeeding when Mommy has her long hair down.  I suggest Mom’s tie their hair back to avoid the baby associated Mommy’s breast/milk with the soft, silky texture of hair.

Why is it acceptable to have a lovey for your entire youth, but not suck on your fingers/thumb?

Sucking on fingers/thumb falls into the category of the Oral Stage of Development (0-18 months).  It is a natural normal part of early experience.  Once your child reaches the age of going to preschool (I recommend not before your toddler is at least 2 years and 9 months and older), another child will comment on the finger/thumb sucking by saying, “You’re a baby.”  At that point, most children reserve the sucking for falling asleep times and gradually the child needs it less and less.  Regarding the lovey, most kids give it up completely by age 9 or 10 years, usually long before that.  I treated one mom who was so deeply attached to her childhood lovey that she commanded her husband bring it to her when she was delivering her babies and staying overnight in the hospital!  That is an extreme example.

What is the appropriate age to break these habits?

It varies for each individual child.  It should never be broken or taken away cold-turkey.  There are gradual ways to help your child let go of his beloved attachment object.  For example, if your toddler is 3 years-old and sucking constantly on his pacifier, you may begin by setting boundaries.  Tell him empathically that you know he loves his pacifier (call it whatever he does ie: “Paci”).  Say,  “My boy is growing up to be a big schoolboy.  Whenever you want to suck on your Paci you can go into your bedroom and suck as long as you like, and come back to Mommy in the other room when you are ready.”  Let your child choose a “place” in his room where he wants to keep his Paci and it’s always there.  Allow him to go in and out at his choice.  The motivation for him to decrease is that Mommy is in the other room.  We hope he wants to get back to Mommy soon.  You are his motivation!

Each habit is so different from one another, but some children have more than one–is there a uniform way to stop it?

You can only stop when your child has been equipped with the necessary coping skills to handle anxiety and frustration without the aid of her beloved T.O.  These coping skills are developed when your child has gotten consistently empathic and validating responses from you during times of his frustration, anger, and anxiety.  So many parents are embarrassed by their child’s attachments to T.O.’s and habits.  This is particularly true when a child has more than one attachment object and has developed an elaborate self-soothing habit.  For instance, when I was a young baby I sucked on my right middle and ring finger while messaging my cheeks with the right index and pinkie.  I remember come a certain young school age looking forward to this pleasure when I was in bed falling asleep.  I am the second of four children.  Perhaps, I needed more attention from my beloved mom because she was overwhelmed being a young mother.  Remember, your child uses these things when under stress.  It is very important for your child to feel that you accept him or her, flaws and all.

From what I understand, having a lovey is self-soothing. Aren’t the others soothing as well?

Yes, absolutely.  All of the habits you have indicated begin as self-soothing ones.  I treat older school-age kids who develop other habits including fingernail biting, chewing on their shirt, et cetera.  These are all habits created as anxiety-reducers.  When your child experiences a tinge of anxiety, she distracts herself by focusing on the habit.  It is her way of diffusing and decreasing the level of anxiety she is experiencing in that moment.

Is there a certain age where the child should no longer bring their lovey everywhere with them–that it just stays in the crib/bed?

Yes.  Again, it is best for your child to do this gradually.  For instance, the good preschools understand this process.  They often have a rule that toddlers may bring their loveys with them to school and put it in their cubby.  It is there (at school) and available if your child needs it.  The times your child may need it are during nap time, when upset over conflicts with another child, or when experiencing separation-anxiety from Mommy.  Use of the cubby is a boundary just like my suggestion of your child choosing a place in her bedroom.

How do you go about enforcing this?

For the bedroom example, if your child brings her Paci out of the room you need to supportive and clearly walk her back, tell her sucking is for in her bedroom, and stand outside of her room with her door closed but slightly ajar (so she doesn’t feel abandoned) and be there to welcome her back to the rest of the open space at home.

Finger/Thumb sucking:
My son sucks his fingers, and two years ago, we set up a chart where he was rewarded a toy if he went three weeks without sucking his fingers. He did it, and as soon as he got the toy, he started again. He didn’t care that the toy was taken away. He’s also been able to stop for long periods if he has a cut on his finger. Point is–he CAN do it. Why doesn’t he just stop?

Because there is NO toy or reward that provides more gratification than the primitive (young) pleasure of oral sucking.  It simply is nirvana to your child.  That is why behavioral charts (reward/punishment) generally have only a short-term effect. They do not target the source.  It is much better to help your child grow and deal with daily frustrations through empathic attunement.

For finger/thumb sucking–I’ve read that there is no point to trying to stop your child from doing so–they will stop when they are ready. Is this true? What if they enter kindergarten and are still constantly sucking their fingers?

This is true.  When your child enters kindergarten they usually stop or go underground by sucking only when in private because they are shamed by another child commenting or calling them a baby.

In the “old days” pepper sauce, or something equally as bad tasting, would be put on the fingers to stop them from going into the child’s mouth. Is it still okay to do this?

No, it’s not okay.  I actually worked with several parents who have tried these drastic tactics.  They are harsh and terribly inflaming and upsetting to your child.  The child experiences this as you controlling their body.  One of the many goals of the toddler phase is for your child to master his own body (self-feeding, toilet-training).  You are invading their “body” when you put something foreign on their fingers.

What are your suggestions in stopping finger sucking?

Have an empathic straight-talk conversation with your child.  Explain that you know this feels good to him and it’s fine with you (needs to be).  But let him know that some of the other kids may comment about it and it is up to him if he wants to keep doing it in front of other people or he wants to reserve it for sleep time.  I guarantee you the sting of public humiliation will motivate him to go private.  Crucial that he believes you and his father accept him fully even though he still sucks his fingers.

I’ve read that you need to cut the bottle at age one to protect the child’s teeth from becoming buck and from the sugars that can collect when drinking from a bottle. Is there really a harm for letting a child continue past this age?

First parents should consult their pediatrician with this question.  You may hear a different answer than you will get in this article. I always defer to the pediatrician for medical information.  This question falls more within the scope of the dentist’s opinion.  I have heard the same caution from dentists. At age one children need one pint (16 oz.) of milk per day.  This includes cheese and yogurt.  Your child should not be sucking on a juice bottle.  In my experience, that is where quantities of sugar can cause tooth decay and cavities.  Never give your little one a bottle to hold and drink in bed.

What are your suggestions in cutting the bottle out?

Begin by introducing your toddler to a sippy cup and child’s size drinking cup.  Offer milk during the day in cups.  Cut out daytime bottles and give the bottle before nighttime sleep and daytime nap.  Morning milk can be from a cup.

Some children need pacifiers to sleep, others need them to calm down and mother’s make sure to always have one in their purse when they’re out. Is it acceptable to use the pacifiers “out and about.”

If your child is under 18 months it’s fine to have the pacifier with you at all times but only offer it to help your child when she is overcome with the power of a tantrum or to help her fall asleep.

Is there a certain age when a child shouldn’t have access to the pacifier outside of the crib/bed?

There are different opinions among professionals.  Children should have access to their pacifiers in the crib until age 18 months.  By then most toddlers are walking and have begun the separation process.  At that point, parents can create boundaries by showing the child the location in his room (his choice) of his pacifier for him to access it.  Be sensitive, supportive, and empathic throughout the process.

Should a child stop using a pacifier as a soother to fall asleep?

Yes.  Come a certain point most preschool teachers suggest leaving the pacifier at home after it has remained in the child’s cubby for a period of time.  Usually this is after the first year or two of preschool.  This is a good time for me to mention special circumstances.  You do not want to take away, or even limit, your child’s soothing T.O. when your child is under added stress.  For instance, the entry of a new baby into the family, Mommy returning to work, parents separate/divorce, new nanny, a parent or close family member is seriously ill or under great strain.

What are your suggestions in breaking the habit?

As illustrated earlier, create reasonable boundaries by allowing your child to choose a place where her pacifier can always be “in” her bedroom. She can come and go at her discretion.  Motivation for less use is to return to Mommy who is waiting in another room.

Hair twirling:
I admit it, this is just for me–my son twirls my hair and it drives me nuts! Besides cutting my hair off, how do I get him to stop???

Acknowledging and owning your irritation with your son’s hair twirling is the first giant step.  Good for you!  It is very important that you do not communicate your upset with him.  Having self-awareness will help you to not put it on him.  He does it to settle himself, not to aggravate you.  Introduce him to something else.  Be creative.  Maybe you can interest him in an old, soft unlaundered t-shirt of yours.  Perhaps a silky sleeve you cut off from one of your blouses.  Tell him you are helping him grow.  And you are.  Attachment to hair, Mom’s or his own, occurs during breastfeeding.  I discourage it because it is so difficult and challenging a habit to break.  Cutting his hair off will not break this habit.  The child usually resumes the habit when his hair grows back.  Try to help your son realize that he goes for his hair when something is bothering him.  Encourage him to talk about his feelings.  Expressing himself will reduce some of his upset.  Do your best to keep his anxiety level manageable.

If I’m not around, he twirls his own, which I don’t mind, but he does seem to be getting a bit old for it. He’s 4 1/2–is he too old?

Certainly, by age 4 ½ years you can set limits by saying, “No twirling Mommy’s hair.”  Take his little hand and hold it away from you so that he cannot reach your hair.  It is not that hard to stop him from twirling your hair.  It is a much more challenging task to help him stop twirling his own.  Good luck!

About Dr. Frances Walfish: Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-­tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-­TV in Los Angeles, and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.

Her upcoming book, The Self-­Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press is scheduled to launch December 7, 2010. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at

To pre-order Dr. Fran’s book on Amazon, click here.

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  1. Love this article. I have been working with my son to leave his stuffed animal at home for fear of getting made fun of. I guess I am going to relax and let it happen.

  2. the girl is going on 5 years old, she use to hide and lay down on the floor on her stomock and put her hands under her stomock and her legs are strached out and she moves her body .Now she is doing infront of every one she dont care . how can i stop this and why is she doing it?

  3. im the one has a problem with 5 year old i was thinking do you think she has worms and dont know how to control the itching ?????

  4. Barbara, Thanks for writing your excellent question. I have helped parents deal with this issue many times in my private practice. Your 5 year-old daughter is masturbating. It is absolutely normal for young boys and girls to discover this feel good experience. The likelihood is that at a very young age your little girl found this behavior pleasurable and it became an anxiety-reducer for her (parallel to a pacifier or stuffed animal). What your child needs are crystal clear boundaries. Be sure to not shame her. Say to her, “Mommy knows it feels good to you when you lay on your tummy and rub against the floor. That is a private thing and okay for you to do when you are alone and in your bed.” The boundaries are clear – alone and in her bed. Barbara, you will need to call her on it and remind her EVERY time you see her do this outside of her bedroom. Say it benignly without judgment. Within a week or so you should see this behavior begin to fade.

  5. I have B/G twins who are 18 mo old and only use a pacifier for nap and bedtime. They are kept in there cribs. They very much need them to sleep. I read your article and it sounds like this is ok. If I am to interpret your article, they will eventually quit needing them all on thier own or will they need some nudging at some point…and what age will that be? I had a friend who took her 2 1/2 year old son to the post office to mail the paci to a newborn baby who needed one. I don’t know. I think 2 1/2 is a little too young, but I also worry about the development of their teeth. Thank you!

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