The preschool years are the final steps in a packed five-or-so years of development that set the stage for a child’s success through school and early life experiences. These days, the expectations are increasing. As a teacher, therapist, and a parent, I see what our classrooms are doing and know that children today have to know more, do more, and think more than they used to before they enter Kindergarten. To be successful and participate to the fullest in their classroom environment, they need to be able to communicate to the best of their ability.
There are any number of things that can impede a child’s ability to develop good oral communication skills, but one of the most fundamental pieces in that development is the need for the muscles and structures of the mouth to develop without anything getting in the way. Yes, I’m talking about those pacifiers. The nighttime bottles. Sippy cups. The thumbs.
While sucking is an absolutely appropriate and necessary step in early development, there is not much need for it to develop further once a child has reached 12 months of age (give or take). Prolonging the use of bottles, pacifiers, sippies and especially thumbs may avert the initial nightmare of parting with these beloved crutches, but the endgame will result in much worse than temper tantrums and crying.
Over time, your child’s jaw and roof of the mouth will develop around these intrusive objects and the pressure they provide. Their teeth will become misaligned (and once those permanent teeth come in and they are still sucking on their thumb/fingers, you all know what this means – thousands of dollars in braces down the road). The misalignment of teeth and malformation of oral structures can result in speech sound errors. Your child may also develop a tongue thrust, where the tongue protrudes upon swallowing and also while talking, resulting in what is commonly known as a “lisp”. And constantly having something in their mouth can lead to overall weak speech muscle movements (making speech harder to understand) and delayed language.
Understand that bottles and pacifiers are perfectly appropriate early in a child’s life. Do not feel concern or guilt because your child of 12 months or younger uses one. Avoid the use of “sippy” cups or use them only for a short time, as the muscle movements involved in using them are much the same as bottles and pacifiers. Straw cups and eventually a normal open cup are much better choices as they encourage correct tongue placement and movement.
Having difficulty ditching the pacifier? Here are some strategies you can try:
- Cold Turkey. Like the proverbial band aid or even like smoking – many proclaim this is the best method.
- Dip the pacifier in something bitter but not harmful, such as coffee, and leave it for them to find
- Cut the pacifier. If they don’t seem to mind and just like having it in their mouth, keep cutting pieces off until it won’t stay in their mouth.
- Choose a big day, such as their birthday. Talk about it, prepare for it, then help them “throw it away”. When they ask for it, remind them that it is done, because they are big now. Provide an alternative, such as a healthy snack or drink to put in their mouth instead of the binky.
What about the thumb? You can’t dip it in coffee or cut it! Try:
- Limit the amount of time for sucking – bedtime, in the bedroom. Not in public.
- Praise the child when they are NOT sucking, but avoid confrontations such as telling them they “can’t suck their thumb anymore”. That just sets off all their stubborn bells and whistles.
- Talk with them about why it is better not to suck their thumb or finger.
- Give it time. Give them alternatives, such as extra hugs when they need the “comfort” thumb-sucking provides, the words and language they can use when they’re upset, and be positive.
Feel like you’ve already exhausted these strategies? Be patient. It won’t happen in one instance, overnight, or sometimes even after a couple of days. This is a habit that has been formed and we all know it takes a good deal of work to break habits and establish a new routine. Yes, tears and tantrums can be expected and they are trying, but it is much easier to take the moments of difficulty now than a few years down the line when speech, dental, and peer-relationship concerns become more likely.
And finally, feel free to speak to one of our wonderful, friendly, neighborhood speech-pathologists here at Gerner Family Early Education Center if you have questions or concerns, or are just plain not sure what to do next.
Shotts, L., McDaniel, D., & Neeley, Richard. (2008). The Impact of Prolonged Pacifier Use on Speech Articulation: A Preliminary Investigation. Contemporary Issues in Communication Sciences and Disorders.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2000). Thumb sucking and pacifiers. Retrieved July 14, 2003, from http://www.aap.org/healthtopics/stages.cfm#early.