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Dealing With an Older Thumb-Sucker

A sleeping 1-year-old with her thumb in her mouth is cherubic. But a 7-year-old who still sucks her thumb? Not so cute.

Older thumb-suckers are often teased at school, and may work hard to hide the habit. So why don't they stop? Finger-sucking can be comforting -- it releases endorphins, the same hormones that lift moods during exercise. And after years of doing it, kids can find it tough to call it quits, even if they're ashamed of it.

But if your child doesn't stop, her teeth may start sticking out, or she may develop speech problems, says Pittsburgh pediatric dentist Michael J. Hanna. How to help her kick the habit, from Rosemarie Van Norman, author of Helping the Thumb-Sucking Child:

Don't bring up quitting during times when she's likely to feel anxious, like during a divorce or a move. She'll have less willpower to make a big change then.

Tell her that quitting has to be her decision. She won't be able to stop until she feels ready anyway, so empower her by reminding her that she's in control.

Get help from a pro. Occupying your child's hands and mouth with games and snacks may curb the behavior, but an orofacial myologist can come up with a specific plan to help her truly break the habit.

Be patient. It usually takes grade-schoolers at least three months to stop completely.