How to Stop Thumb Sucking in Kids

Thumb sucking is a common habit in kids.
 sandrajolly / Royalty-free / Getty Images

Your baby likely started sucking their thumb in the womb and perfected the habit as an infant. When a child is young, it’s normal to pop a finger or thumb in their mouth as a way to calm down, self-soothe, or fall asleep.

At that age, there’s no harm in this habit. However, if you notice your young child doing this, consider substituting a pacifier. Although pacifiers can cause the same problems, it’s an easier habit to break.

Once a child reaches toddlerhood, thumb sucking often goes away on its own. However, some older kids replace it with other habits, like nail-biting.

If thumb-sucking is used as a coping skill, a child starts to develop other methods between the ages 2 and 4. For example, developing language skills often naturally ends the practice of sucking the thumb.

If the behavior continues into the preschool years, issues can arise with both thumb-sucking and pacifier-sucking. If a child doesn’t stop the practice naturally, it can lead to developmental issues, both in the mouth and with speech.

Although peer pressure at school typically curbs the habit once a child reaches age 5 or 6, a parent might want to take measures to stop thumb-sucking long before that time.

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 child’s mouth, as well as on the sides of the upper jaw.

When this occurs, the upper jaw can narrow, which prevents the teeth from meeting properly when the jaw is closed. This is an issue that has an expensive fix—braces—but the impact goes beyond that. Narrowing of the jaw can also lead to speech problems, such as a lisp.

As the child grows up, a gap between upper and lower teeth can develop from thumb sucking. At this point, the structure of the jaw has changed and the tongue muscles likely haven’t developed properly.

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.

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

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

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 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.

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, give them something to do with their hands. If your child often sucks their thumb when they are nervous, give them a stress ball to squeeze.

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

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!”

Teach New Coping Skills

Your child is likely sucking his thumb to cope with feeling scared, anxious, sad, or bored. It's important to help them learn other strategies to handle uncomfortable feelings.

Putting lotion on a child's hands that smells good, 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.

Point It Out

While you don’t want to give thumb sucking too much attention (your child might do it more just to see your reaction), you may want to point it out if your child isn’t even aware they are doing it.

Saying, “No thumb,” might be a good reminder to help your child become more aware of the habit. You can also say something like, “Your mouth is for eating and talking, and your hands are for building and playing.”

Explain the Consequences

While a 2-year-old won’t understand a lengthy lecture about the dental damage he may be causing, you can tell an older child, “Sucking your thumb is bad for your teeth." You might also try the germ route and say, “Your thumb has germs on it that you don’t want in your mouth.”

Use Tools

You might want to purchase a plastic cover for the thumb or finger. These products typically range from about $20 to $40. While that isn’t inexpensive, it’s cheaper than braces down the road.

Most kids aren’t able to get them off their thumbs once on, which means the tools tend to break the habit in about two weeks. However, there are some downsides. For example, kids might struggle to play or feed themselves because the thumb cover limits their hand use.

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.” You might even tell them, “When you get five stickers we’ll go play at the park,” if they needs more than a sticker to stay on track.

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 might try a little vinegar on a child’s thumb to make it taste different without it being dangerous or harmful. You also don’t want to take away your child’s coping skills until she’s ready to give it up.

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 just not responding. If your child is five years old or older, talk to the pediatrician or pediatric dentist about the next steps you can take. Hearing a warning from a dentist can also help motivate a child to stop thumb sucking.

Keep in mind that the same strategies don't work for all kids. Some respond to reward systems while others become motivated after learning about how it could affect their teeth. Keep working on it but be patient with the process.

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Article Sources
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  1. 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

  2. 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

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