How to Get Your Child to Stop Sucking Their Thumb

A child with a book in a school or daycare setting sucks their thumb next to another child holding a book. (How to Get Your Child to Stop Sucking Their Thumb)

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Babies and children who suck their thumbs likely started the habit long before they were born. In fact, it is completely normal for infants and young children to pop their thumb—or even a finger—in their mouth to calm down, self-soothe, or help them fall asleep.

"Babies tend to suck their thumbs as a self-soothing measure," explains Heather Sever, DO, a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children's. "They also have natural rooting and sucking reflexes in the newborn period."

Although thumb-sucking is a completely normal practice that sometimes begins in the womb, it is not one you want your child to continue. For this reason, you should help them break the habit and learn other ways to self-soothe or cope with stress—especially before their permanent teeth start to emerge.

Here is what you need to know about weaning your child from thumb-sucking, including how the habit can impact their teeth and jaw, as well as tips for ending the practice for good.

What You Need to Know About Thumb-Sucking

Sucking is a normal reflex in babies, and thumb-sucking is a common activity among infants and toddlers, says Homa Amini, DDS, MS, MPH, a pediatric dentist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and associate professor of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry at The Ohio State University College of Dentistry. In fact, some babies place their thumb in their mouth even before they are born.

Homa Amini, DDS, MS, MPH

Thumb sucking is an infant’s early way of controlling emotions. It also offers comfort and security, and helps the child relax and focus.

— Homa Amini, DDS, MS, MPH

"Thumb-sucking, also known as non-nutritive sucking (sucking not relating to or providing nutrition), has several benefits," Dr. Amini explains. "It is an infant’s early way of controlling emotions. It also offers comfort and security, and helps the child to relax and focus."

All babies are born with a sucking reflex and a natural biological instinct to suck to help with breastfeeding and bottle feeding, adds Amna Husain, MD, IBCLC, a pediatrician, international board-certified lactation consultant, and CeraVe Baby expert consultant with Pure Direct Pediatrics in New Jersey.

"That sucking reflex can help them calm down and gain composure when they are upset," Dr. Husain says. "Sucking can be an effective way for an infant to soothe themselves during development."

Why Weaning From Thumb-Sucking Is Important

Thumb and finger-sucking can affect your child’s mouth and jaw because of the pressure on the soft tissue on the roof of the mouth, as well as on the sides of the upper jaw. This pressure can cause the upper jaw to narrow, which prevents the teeth from meeting properly when the jaw is closed.

"Prolonged thumb-sucking may affect the way teeth line up, constrict the upper jaw, and open the bite, resulting in a gap between front top and bottom teeth," says Dr. Amini. "The dental effects are related to the frequency, intensity, and duration of the habit. These changes are temporary, with little likelihood of long-term effects if the habit is discontinued by three to four years."

Habitual sucking also is hard on the skin of the thumb, and increases the risk of problems such as callus formation or cracked skin, says Dr. Amini. In fact, a 2016 study published in Pediatric Dental Journal found that a callus on the thumb or finger caused by sucking predicts a malocclusion—imperfect positioning of the teeth when the jaws are closed—in children.

Dentists who discovered toddlers and preschoolers sucked their thumbs often 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.

Thumb-sucking also can impact a child's speech development, says Dr. Husain. Plus, the upper jaw can be pushed out further and their front teeth can be pushed up and out, causing an overbite.

"[Children also] can get a gap between their upper and lower teeth, and the roof of their mouth or palate can become pushed up and narrowed," adds Dr. Husain.

When to Begin Weaning From Thumb-Sucking

According to Dr. Sever, some babies often stop sucking their thumbs spontaneously around six or seven months of age. But if your child is still sucking their thumb into their toddler and preschool years, you should consider weaning them.

Amna Husain, MD, IBCLC

Generally, pediatricians and dentists agree that by three to four years of age, children should stop sucking on their thumb or pacifier. Some pediatricians may even recommend it be eliminated sooner.

— Amna Husain, MD, IBCLC

"I usually recommend making sure the habit is eliminated well before their adult teeth begin to emerge," says Dr. Husain. "Generally, pediatricians and dentists agree that by three to four years of age, children should stop sucking on their thumb or pacifier. Some pediatricians may even recommend it be eliminated sooner. However, each child is different and their processing skills, coping abilities, and understanding of stopping a habit can vary."

For most children, the urge to suck their thumb decreases as they get older, Dr. Amini says. However, for some it becomes a habit and continues beyond toddler years, particularly when they are in need of soothing or going to sleep.

If thumb-sucking is used as a coping skill, a child starts to develop other methods between the ages of two and four. But if a child doesn’t naturally give up the practice, it can lead to developmental problems in the mouth and with speech.

Weaning Your Child From Thumb-Sucking

The decision to break a thumb-sucking habit is ultimately your child's. That said, there are several things you can do to encourage them along the way. For instance, some parents find that positive reinforcement, praise, and rewards are helpful tools.

"It’s important for families to remember that thumb-sucking is normal in children, [but] if continued for too long, there is the possibility of effects on dental health and development," says Dr. Amini. "When moving away from thumb-sucking, be sure to praise your child when they don’t suck their thumb and start a reward system such as stickers or an extra bedtime story."

If your child is ready to break the thumb-sucking habit, you will find a step-by-step guide on how to wean your toddler or preschooler.

Prepare Your Child

While there is no simple answer on how to wean an infant from thumb-sucking, books are a helpful way to begin introducing the concept, says Dr. Husain. She recommends the book "Thumbs Up Brown Bear" by Michael Dahl as a great place to start.

"[You also can] talk to your child in basic terms and tell them why you want them to stop," adds Dr. Amini. "Let them know that you believe they can do it."

Start Slow

Once they are ready to try to quit, do what you can to support their efforts. For instance, you may want to establish a place in the house—such as their bed—where they can suck their thumb if they really need to, and then make the rest of their environment off limits for thumb-sucking.

"[Your] child may need to be weaned off thumb-sucking slowly," Dr. Sever says. "Perhaps allow the child to only utilize thumb-sucking when they go to bed, but discourage them from doing it at other times of the day."

Offer Praise

Sometimes all it takes to motivate your child to keep their fingers out of their mouth is a little positive reinforcement. Continuously pointing out that they are sucking their thumb and drawing attention to the behavior is not usually successful. Instead, draw attention to the behaviors that you want to see—not the ones you don't.

"Praise your child when they don’t suck their thumb and start a reward system such as stickers or an extra bedtime story," Dr. Amini suggests. "[You also can] start a calendar to track their progress and reinforce their success by placing a star on days when the habit was avoided."

Offer Alternatives

When you see your child sucking their thumb, you might try giving them something to do with their hands, like a fidget toy or a stress ball. Or, if they suck their thumb when they're bored, give them something else to occupy their hands. Encourage them to color a picture, toss a ball back and forth, or finger paint—anything that keeps their little hands busy.

"When trying to wean a child, [it's also important to] find alternative ways of comforting and soothing, such as a stuffed animal or other objects," Dr. Amini says.

Teach New Coping Skills

Sometimes kids suck their thumbs to cope with feeling scared, anxious, sad, or bored. It's important to help them learn other strategies to handle uncomfortable feelings. It also can be helpful to identify your child's triggers, says Dr. Sever.

"Children often use thumb-sucking as a coping mechanism when they are stressed or need reassurance," she says.

To help combat these triggers, you might help them practice mindfulness, perform breathing exercises, listen to music, or perform kid-friendly yoga moves that not only help them feel better but also could replace thumb-sucking as a way to cope.

Know When to Get Help

Keep in mind that taking extreme measures like putting bitter substances on the thumb can sometimes 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.

That said, thumb-sucking is not a habit that should continue indefinitely. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider or dentist about their thumb-sucking habit. Sometimes early identification of problems is key to resolving them.

Additional Tips

If you feel like you have attempted everything and your child is still sucking their thumb, it may be time to try something new. For children who express a desire to quit and just need a little help, parents can try physical interventions to serve as a reminder, says Dr. Amini.

"These techniques include covering their hands with mittens or socks when they go to bed, or dressing them in a special shirt with the sleeves sewn closed," she says. "[You also can place] a bandage or specialty plastic guard on the thumb or finger."

If these methods are not effective, she suggests talk to your child's dentist. There are dental appliances that can be placed in their mouth when a child wants to stop but needs a reminder, she says.

You also should try to stay as positive as possible. Sometimes well-intentioned parents use negative techniques to get their child to stop the habit, says Dr. Amini. But yelling, making fun, or threatening punishment are not helpful.

Heather Sever, DO

Don’t scold your child when they are caught thumb-sucking. Sometimes these actions are engrained as habits and the child doesn’t even recognize they are doing it.

— Heather Sever, DO

"Don’t scold your child when they are caught thumb sucking," adds Dr. Sever. "Sometimes these actions are engrained as habits and the child doesn’t even recognize they are doing it. Try gently reminding your child [instead]."

Also, remember that you know your child best. Don't be afraid to get creative with how you help them wean from thumb-sucking. For instance, some parents have found that replacing the thumb-sucking with other relaxing methods like a bubble bath, a massage, or listening to music has been beneficial.

"Parents can substitute with an activity like baby massage with a ceramide-containing cream like CeraVe Baby Moisturizing Lotion or Moisturizing Cream," says Dr. Husain. "I have also seen skin breakdown around the cuticles when children suck their thumb or fingers excessively. An emollient cream like CeraVe Baby Healing Ointment is great option to apply on the skin of the sucked finger(s) to help protect and maintain the skin barrier."

A Word From Verywell

Trying to break a thumb-sucking habit can be both stressful and challenging—especially if your child is not responding to your efforts. Keep in mind that there is not one right way to curb thumb-sucking. Be patient and work with your child. Once they are ready to stop, help them be successful, offer lots of praise, and equip them with new ways to cope with stress.

If your child is five or older and still sucking their thumb, talk to your child's healthcare provider or pediatric dentist about the next steps you should take. They can offer advice on how to address the issue, as well as assess your child's unique situation.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Oyamada Y, Ikeuchi T, Arakaki M, et al. Finger sucking callus as useful indicator for malocclusion in young childrenPediatric Dental Journal. 2016;26(3):103-108. doi:10.1016/j.pdj.2016.07.003

  2. Tanaka O, Oliveira W, Galarza M, Aoki V, Bertaiolli B. Breaking the Thumb Sucking Habit: When Compliance Is Essential. Case Rep Dent. 2016;2016:6010615. doi:10.1155%2F2016%2F6010615

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert. 

Originally written by Amy Morin