We all have bad habits. Frequently, they are such an automated unconscious behavior that we don’t even realize they are occurring. Children have a few that parents frequently ask for advice about changing. The most common habits that cause stress to parents are prolonged use of pacifiers, thumb sucking, nail biting and, the most unpleasant, nose picking.
The use of the pacifier is a very reasonable and normal habit for an infant or young toddler. Infants need to suck; it is a normal developmental process to self-sooth. When everything around us is frenzied, the pacifier seems a way for an infant to pull things together and calm. We use similar and more socially acceptable methods to achieve the same calm in the adult world – smoking, chewing gum, drinking coffee and snacking throughout the day.
As an infant grows to a toddler and language is emerging, it is reasonable to try to be more aggressive about getting rid of the pacifier. Often times this is more of a weaning process for the parent than the child. Start preparing your child early by restricting use to a particular place, such as their bedroom. I recommend putting some type of container near the crib so the child, not the parent, can place the pacifier in it prior to leaving the room. Then they know it will be waiting for them at nap or bedtime. Down the road, this can make stopping use of the pacifier a bit easier
There are other tricks you can use to enhance the process. As you lose pacifiers, don’t buy more. If a child is a little older, you need to prepare them for the transition. Children experience time differently than we do. For instance, if you are planning to stop using the pacifier two days from now, you explain it to them by saying, “ You are going to go to sleep, wake up, go to sleep wake up and then we won’t use the pacifier anymore.” Also, some children respond well to letting go of their pacifier by giving their pacifier away to a younger child. Other times, you just need to go cold turkey. It may seem an insurmountable task, but in reality after a few days things will settle down.
Lastly, it is important to try to break the habit fully prior to bringing home a new baby. You do not want your older child grabbing a pacifier out of the mouth of the new baby.
The Nastier Habits
Thumb sucking, nail biting and nose picking are not easy behaviors to change. As infants, nail biting and thumb sucking are ways to self-calm. As parents, the worse thing we can do is nag our kids saying, “Stop sucking your thumb!” No one likes to be nagged. It belittles us and makes us feel small. In most cases when we nag children about these types of habits, it increases the frequency of the behavior.
Instead, I suggest gentle, non-judgmental reminders that offer an alternative. Having a collection of sensory items that you can wordlessly hand to your child is a good distraction. For example, a sand animal, stress ball, water filled object or a string of beads can do the trick. If you just hand an item to the child as they begin to display the habit, they can transition the unwanted habit to a new behavior. In time, the child will learn to reach for the object instead of their mouth or nose.
Another technique to use on older children is the Secret Code Word. Instead of telling your child to stop the undesirable behavior, the parent and child come up with a secret code word that really translates to “Stop doing whatever you were doing.” I encourage the parent and child to come up with something funny so that it becomes an inside joke instead of an admonishment. This also is a fun, more positive way to approach the issue that can prevent tension from building.
As with any other behavior, it is important to model these behaviors ourselves. It is hard to tell your child to quit biting their nails as we bite our own. It is important to identify that your child may be reacting to the stressors in their own environment, and these habits are just a way to help them pull together. Parents should make an effort to praise kids when they are behaving in the manner we desire. “Hey, I noticed that you were not sucking your thumb when you were reading that book. That was great.” We want to support them in creating good feelings about themselves to teach them how to deal with the world around them.
Dr. Sheinkop is the mother of three girls and has been a pediatrician in Chicago’s northern suburbs for 25 years. While she treats most pediatric issues, she is passionate about the topics of parenting a child with special needs, relationship building and asthma. She currently treats patients for PediaTrust/Lake Shore Pediatrics, a new private partnership of seven pediatric practices located in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago.
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