How Many Days Does it Take to Break a Habit

Breaking Bad Habits and Creating Good Ones

Whether you’re trying to get your child on track with a good habit or help him break a bad one, it takes time. And while many experts suggest 21 days as the magic number for adults, kids are different, and so are the stages of their lives. Getting your baby accustomed to sleeping in a noisy home could take less time than getting a forgetful adolescent to put his dish in the dishwasher. It really depends on the habit you’re trying to create or break and how you approach simple and serious lifestyle changes.

What Is a Habit?

Newborn baby girl sleep first days of life.

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Self-soothing to sleep; brushing her teeth: These are a couple of good habits you expect your child to adopt. Hanging on to the pacifier for too long; biting when he’s angry: They're habits you’d clearly want him to break. A habit is an action triggered by a contextual cue. Using the pacifier when it’s time to sleep is a habit. The pacifier is the habit; nap time is both context and cue. Hopping into his car seat and buckling in is a good habit. The action happens in the contextual setting of the car.

The Phases of Habits

There are three basic stages of habit: initiation, learning and stability. In the initiation phase, the behavior is introduced against the context it will occur. For example, you want your child to brush his teeth every night before bed. Introduce the action and expectation. During the learning phase, the action is repeated. It’s not just on Tuesdays; he needs to brush his teeth every night. In a couple of weeks, he’ll understand this is just part of his day, a normal routine. During the stability phase, the habit has formed, and it is so ingrained that it will feel “wrong” if he doesn’t brush his teeth.

Breaking Bad Habits

Newborn baby girl sleep first days of life.

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Just as consistency is an important part of being a good parent, breaking your child’s bad habits requires a steady and consistent approach. Start with realistic expectations. For example, you may have read that pacifiers can have some long-term negative effects on developing teeth. But pulling the binky out of your 3-month-old’s mouth and wishing her luck on falling to sleep is not the way to go. Your baby’s sucking instinct is strong until after the 6-month mark. Wait for the right opportunity and then follow through. Once you take it away, be prepared to keep it away. Pacifier use could be one of those easy habits to break, requiring only a single night of non-use. Be watchful, though. If you pulled it too soon, she might opt for her thumb, and it’s way harder to take that away.

Opt for Incrementalism

With older children, it may be harder to introduce new habits. They need to understand and believe in the benefit before they’ll even make an initial effort. Help them see the end goal and offer them some incremental steps to get there. Your child wants to make the team and practices pretty regularly, but overall physical stamina will help with any sport. Whether it’s hitting the gym or going for a regular run, help him measure his improvement in reps or time. He’s approaching adulthood now, so explain how good habits are formed and show him the science. A study on “making health habitual” published in the British Journal of General Practice found that unlike the myth of 21 days to healthy habits, in reality, habits are more likely to take 66 days to form.