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Most parents have no trouble with an infant sucking on a pacifier. But when a preschooler has to pull his pacifier out of his mouth to explain the plot of a Phineas and Ferb episode, most adults suspect things have carried on too long. At what age is a child too old for his favorite habit?

The child is too old, or is beginning to be too old, at the point when his habit becomes a habit instead of being a real comfort. A pacifier or a thumb provides real comfort for an infant. The sucking reflex is one of the few outlets an infant has for her anxiety or discontent. But at a certain point, the thumb or pacifier loses its comfort value and crosses the line into being a mere habit. The child sucks, not because sucking makes her feel good, but just because that’s what she does. It’s a habit.

It’s true that an older child might suck his thumb particularly when he is falling asleep or after he’s been upset. So it might appear that sucking still offers the same benefits it did when he was tiny. But actually the child has other outlets and could grow beyond the infantile suckle reflex. But because sucking has become a habit he will need some help to change.

Another indicator that a child is too old for her habit is if she says she wants to quit or if she is being teased about it. If a habit interferes with your child’s happiness or reputation, then clearly she needs some help with it.

How can you help your child give up a habit that needs to be let go?

If the habit truly must be stopped (not just moved to the privacy of one’s own room), then it matters whose idea this is. If stopping the habit is the child’s idea, then your job as a parent is easier. You and your child can brainstorm ideas for substituting something else for the habit, tracking progress toward reducing the habit and so on. You can be on a team, but the child takes the lead.

If stopping the habit is your idea, then you have two tasks: first you must make the child aware of when she is indulging in the habit since she’s likely not aware of this, and second, you must help her to make the choice to reject the habit when she notices she’s indulging in it. Noticing that she has a problem comes first.

Have a heart-to-heart talk someday when both of you are in a good mood and have some time. Describe your concern about the habit and state clearly your desire that your child give it up. Agree to notice how often she indulges in this habit over the next day or two. You might keep a chart or tally. Say, “Sally, I see you sucking your thumb right now” and have her mark the chart. But don’t hassle your child or shame her. Don’t tell her she’s being a baby.

At a second talk with your child, discuss the tallies on the chart and think of ways to reduce the habit. See if every day the number of indulgences can be smaller than before. Talk about other things your child could do when the urge to indulge the habit strikes. Work together on this, but not as adversaries. While quitting the habit might be your idea, you can’t make quitting happen without your child’s cooperation. So cooperate.

You know it’s not easy to quit a habit. If you ever smoked cigarettes, used language that embarrassed your mother, left your clothes on the floor where you took them off, or said, “You know?” all the time, you understand that quitting a habit is difficult. Think back to the struggle you went through when you stopped doing those things. Or maybe you tried but didn’t manage actually to quit?

Quitting takes time. Cut your child some slack. Be patient and persistent and celebrate his progress along the way.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.