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How to Stop Thumb Sucking in Kids


Your child might have started sucking their thumb in the womb—possibly as early as 30 weeks’ gestation. It’s normal for infants and young children to pop a finger or their thumb in their mouth to calm down, self-soothe, or help them fall asleep.

The habit isn’t harmful, though you might want to consider substituting a pacifier (which can be an easier habit to break than thumb-sucking). By toddlerhood, thumb sucking often goes away on its own. However, older kids might replace the habit with another, like nail-biting.

If thumb-sucking is used as a coping skill, a child starts to develop other methods between the ages of 2 and 4. If the behavior continues into the preschool years, issues can arise with both thumb-sucking and pacifier-sucking. If a child doesn’t naturally give up the practice it can lead to developmental problems in the mouth and with speech.1

Peer pressure at school typically curbs the habit once a child reaches school-age, but the habit of thumb-sucking often stops spontaneously sooner than that (between the ages of 2 and 4).

Potential Dental Problems From Thumb Sucking

Thumb and finger sucking can impact a child’s mouth and jaw as early as 2 years old. The sucking puts pressure on the soft tissue of the roof of the mouth, as well as on the sides of the upper jaw. The pressure can cause the upper jaw can narrow, which prevents the teeth from meeting properly when the jaw is closed. When a child sucks their thumbs until after they have lost baby teeth and their permanent teeth come in, a “buck teeth” appearance can develop.

Braces are the expensive fix for these issues. However, if a child stops digit sucking prior to the eruption of their permanent teeth (usually around age 6) the changes to the mouth and teeth may self-resolve and not require braces to correct.

The severity of the physical problems stemming from the habit depends on how vigorously a child sucks their thumb. If they simply rest their thumb in their mouth without actually sucking too much, there will likely be fewer problems than if it’s an active movement.

Children who create a lot of suction when sucking a digit (you may hear a “pop” when the digit comes out of the mouth) are more likely to affect the growth pattern of the mouth and teeth compared to kids who just put a finger in their mouth or suck gently on it.

Keep a close eye on how your child sucks their thumb. Make a move to curb the habit earlier if you notice vigorous sucking.

Dentists who discovered toddlers and preschoolers sucked their thumbs often enough and vigorously enough to have formed a callus were likely to have jaw and dental issues. However, the same study found that when children stop thumb sucking by the age of four, any jaw or dental problems may resolve themselves.

It’s important to tell your child’s physician and dentist about their thumb-sucking habit. Early identification of problems is key to resolving them.

While the two are sometimes said to be connected, it’s not clear if thumb-sucking directly causes a child to have a lisp. Certain lisps are actually normal in the age group that is most likely to suck their thumb (about 2 years old).

How to Address Thumb Sucking

It’s ultimately up to your child to break a thumb-sucking habit. That said, there are several things parents should keep in mind as they attempt to discourage a child from sucking their thumb, as well as a few strategies to try.

Stay Calm

Yelling or insisting that your child stops sucking their thumb isn’t helpful. Although you might be worried about the potential damage they are doing to their teeth or all the germs they are putting in their mouth, getting upset with a child isn’t likely to lead to cooperation.

Create a Diversion

When you see your child sucking their thumb, make sure they have something to do with their hands (such as giving them a stress ball to squeeze). However, if your child sucks their thumb to cope with nervousness, it won’t be enough to simply divert them or give them something to do. You’ll need to address the source of their anxiety.

If they suck their thumb when they’re bored, encourage your child to color a picture, toss a ball back and forth, or finger paint—anything that keeps their little hands busy.

Offer Plenty of Praise

Rather than continuously pointing out that they are sucking their thumb and drawing attention to the behavior, make a point to reinforce and praise them when they are not sucking their thumb. You want to draw attention to the behaviors that you want to see—not the ones you don’t.

Whenever you see your child remove the thumb from their mouth on their own accord, heap on the praise. Say something like, “Great job remembering to take your thumb out of your mouth,” or “I noticed you are keeping your hands on your toys and out of your mouth today. Great job!”

You don’t want to give thumb sucking too much attention (your child might continue to do it or do it more just to get your reaction). However, if your child does not even seem to be aware that they are doing it, you might want to point it out once or twice.

Teach New Coping Skills

Your child might suck their thumb to cope with feeling scared, anxious, sad, or bored. It’s important to help them learn other strategies to handle uncomfortable feelings.

Medication and breathing exercises, listening to music, or doing simple kid-friendly yoga moves can also help a child feel better and could replace thumb-sucking as a way to cope.

Give Rewards

Positive reinforcement might motivate your child to keep their fingers out of their mouth. Create a sticker chart and give stickers at certain times throughout the day.

While you can’t stare at your child for 24 hours, you can say, “Here’s a sticker because you didn’t suck your thumb while we played that game.” If they need more than a sticker to stay on track, try offering a bigger goal and reward. “When you get five stickers we’ll go play at the park.”

Taste Tricks

There are many stories about parents putting cayenne pepper or hot sauce on their children’s fingers in a desperate attempt to get them to stop thumb sucking. Taking extreme measures isn’t a good idea and it can be quite upsetting to kids. You also don’t want to take away your child’s coping strategy before they are ready to give it up.

You might try a little vinegar on a child’s thumb to make it taste different without it being dangerous or harmful.

A Word From Verywell

If your child is still a toddler, the best thing you can do is be patient. Although it’s frustrating and sometimes disgusting to watch your child put their dirty thumb in their mouth. remember that they will likely stop the behavior on their own when they are ready.

It can be stressful for a parent to try to break a thumb-sucking habit in a child who’s not responding to their efforts. Keep in mind that no one strategy to curb thumb-sucking will work for every kid. You will need to be patient and work with your child to help them feel ready to stop sucking their thumb and equip them with a new way to cope.

If your child is 5 years old or older and still sucking their thumb, talk to your pediatrician or pediatric dentist about the next steps you should take.

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