November 27, 2020

8 Ways to Stop the Thumb Sucking Habit

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Written by
Blueberry Editorial Team
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Lyndsey Garbi
Dr. Lyndsey Garbi, MD is the Chief Medical Officer of Blueberry Pediatrics and mom to three children. Dr. Garbi is board-certified in Pediatrics and Neonatology.
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Thumb-sucking is a common behavior among infants, initially rooted in their natural sucking reflex for nourishment. As parents, witnessing our children develop this habit can be frustrating and challenging, especially when considering the potential impact on oral health. While it's a self-soothing mechanism for them, prolonged thumb-sucking may lead to changes in mouth structure, such as an overbite.

If your child is a persistent thumb-sucker, addressing the habit is essential before permanent teeth come in. Keep reading for eight effective strategies to help you guide your child away from thumb-sucking.

Why do children suck their thumbs?

The sucking reflex is an innate behavior babies have to suckle their milk and get nutrition. Finding their thumb at that young age may become a habit for them to self-soothe; in some cases, it stays with them as they grow. 

Some children use only one hand, and some use both. If your child is a strong sucker, the habit may cause their mouth to change shape, creating an overbite where the front teeth look pushed out. If they stop before the permanent teeth come in, this may correct itself, but there is still a chance that the palate may need correcting with a palate expander and braces when they are older.

At what age should children stop sucking their thumb?

Many children stop sucking their thumb naturally around 6 or 7 months, but prolonged suckers may continue to find comfort in their thumb between ages 2 and 4. Children who have stopped sucking their thumb may occasionally revert to the behavior during times of stress. And while occasional thumb-sucking behavior is okay, habitual pacifier, thumb, or finger sucking beyond the age of 2-4 years can affect how a child's mouth and teeth develop. 

How to help your child stop thumb sucking

There are many approaches to help stop your child’s habit, and combining multiple strategies may increase the likelihood of success. 

1. Use positive reinforcement

Instead of adopting a negative approach, encourage your child positively. Use reward charts and gentle reminders to foster a sense of achievement when they refrain from thumb-sucking. A sticker chart can be particularly effective, gradually spacing out rewards to reinforce the desired behavior.

2. Keep your child’s hands busy

Engage your child in various activities to keep their hands occupied. Arts and crafts, dancing, writing, baking, biking, jewelry-making, and sports can distract effectively. Of course, you can’t keep your child busy 100% of the time, so this method is a complement to other methods mentioned in this article.

3. Put on a mask

Masks have many benefits, like reducing the transmission of contagious diseases and keeping germ-filled hands-off faces. It can also be useful for stopping thumb-sucking! Masks act as a barrier, deterring children from putting their thumbs in their mouths and providing additional protection.

4. Wear thumb guards

This is one of the most successful methods to help your child stop if used correctly. These aids have air holes that prevent suction but allow your child to engage in daily activities comfortably. Consult your dentist for recommendations on thumb guards or other devices.

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5. Apply bad-tasting nail polish

While not always foolproof, some children may respond to the taste deterrent of bad-tasting nail polish. Experiment with different brands to find one that your child finds less tolerable.  

6. Avoid ridiculing the behavior

Yes, this is a list of things you should do, but we’d be remiss not to make note of this potentially harmful tactic. Ridiculing, teasing, or punishing for thumb-sucking can affect your child’s well-being and self-esteem. A more upbeat approach is a better way to support your child in the short- and long-term.

7. Have a heart-to-heart conversation

If your child is older, engage in a heartfelt conversation about the implications of thumb-sucking. Discuss the spread of germs, potential dental issues, the risk of bullying, and speech impediments. Frame these discussions positively to encourage understanding.

Germs

Remind your child that hands in the mouth are one way to spread germs and get sick. Kids don't want to be sick and miss out on school, activities, sports, and time with friends. Staying healthy is a good incentive!

Serious dental work

If your child is old enough to have this conversation, their thumb-sucking habit has likely done some damage already. They may be able to minimize the chances of needing a palate expander among additional orthodontic interventions. Show them pictures of the interventions, share what foods they may have to avoid as a result, and explain that the interventions can be painful for them - and expensive for you!

Bullying

It's important each child recognizes they are amazing - thumb-sucking or not. Some kids may be impacted by peer pressure and want to fit in and not be ridiculed. This is a hard one to talk about because you don't want to make them feel bad or guilty about thumb sucking, but instead gently explain that some kids may pick on them for sucking their thumb.

Speech impediments: difficulty saying certain letters come with the habit of thumb sucking when the palate has changed shape and doesn't allow for placement of the tongue where it is supposed to be when forming certain sounds. It may make it much tougher for a child to learn to speak correctly and require extra services, which can come with some frustration.

8. Use sleep interventions

Consider short-term solutions like putting socks on your child’s hands during sleep or cloth covers during the day. While these may act as reminders, it's crucial to approach them as complementary measures.

Can Children Stop on Their Own?

Most children typically stop sucking their thumbs during elementary school. However, if they haven't stopped by then, peer pressure often plays a role in encouraging them to quit as they grow older. Although they may still find comfort in sucking their thumb privately or at night, they can control this behavior.

While dentists often advise intervening to prevent potential damage, not all pediatricians share the same recommendations. Ultimately, the decision to actively discourage thumb-sucking is a personal one that should be made by each family, considering their own needs and their children's unique personalities. 

Avoiding excessive pressure is important, as this can be counterproductive and cause more harm than good. Therefore, carefully evaluate the situation before taking action. Have questions or want support? Blueberry Pediatrics is here for you and your family. 

Blueberry offers unlimited, on-demand access to board-certified pediatricians via text, phone, or video. Our pediatric team can provide guidance on a range of common childhood symptoms, illnesses, and questions - no question is too big or too small! 

The best part? Families get unlimited visits for every child in their household for one low monthly or annual fee. It's like having a doctor's office in your house. Sign up to chat with a pediatrician right away.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is thumb sucking bad?

Thumb sucking is a common behavior in babies and toddler. The habit typiclly begins as a wy to self soothe. While the behavior itself is not bad, prolonged sucking can have adverse effects on their teeth, mouth, and speech.

Why do babies suck their thumb?

The sucking reflex is an innate behavior babies have to suckle their milk and get nutrition. Over time, the behavior may become a mechanism for them to self-soothe.

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8 Ways to Stop the Thumb Sucking Habit

Blueberry Editorial Team
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Table of Contents

    Thumb-sucking is a common behavior among infants, initially rooted in their natural sucking reflex for nourishment. As parents, witnessing our children develop this habit can be frustrating and challenging, especially when considering the potential impact on oral health. While it's a self-soothing mechanism for them, prolonged thumb-sucking may lead to changes in mouth structure, such as an overbite.

    If your child is a persistent thumb-sucker, addressing the habit is essential before permanent teeth come in. Keep reading for eight effective strategies to help you guide your child away from thumb-sucking.

    Why do children suck their thumbs?

    The sucking reflex is an innate behavior babies have to suckle their milk and get nutrition. Finding their thumb at that young age may become a habit for them to self-soothe; in some cases, it stays with them as they grow. 

    Some children use only one hand, and some use both. If your child is a strong sucker, the habit may cause their mouth to change shape, creating an overbite where the front teeth look pushed out. If they stop before the permanent teeth come in, this may correct itself, but there is still a chance that the palate may need correcting with a palate expander and braces when they are older.

    At what age should children stop sucking their thumb?

    Many children stop sucking their thumb naturally around 6 or 7 months, but prolonged suckers may continue to find comfort in their thumb between ages 2 and 4. Children who have stopped sucking their thumb may occasionally revert to the behavior during times of stress. And while occasional thumb-sucking behavior is okay, habitual pacifier, thumb, or finger sucking beyond the age of 2-4 years can affect how a child's mouth and teeth develop. 

    How to help your child stop thumb sucking

    There are many approaches to help stop your child’s habit, and combining multiple strategies may increase the likelihood of success. 

    1. Use positive reinforcement

    Instead of adopting a negative approach, encourage your child positively. Use reward charts and gentle reminders to foster a sense of achievement when they refrain from thumb-sucking. A sticker chart can be particularly effective, gradually spacing out rewards to reinforce the desired behavior.

    2. Keep your child’s hands busy

    Engage your child in various activities to keep their hands occupied. Arts and crafts, dancing, writing, baking, biking, jewelry-making, and sports can distract effectively. Of course, you can’t keep your child busy 100% of the time, so this method is a complement to other methods mentioned in this article.

    3. Put on a mask

    Masks have many benefits, like reducing the transmission of contagious diseases and keeping germ-filled hands-off faces. It can also be useful for stopping thumb-sucking! Masks act as a barrier, deterring children from putting their thumbs in their mouths and providing additional protection.

    4. Wear thumb guards

    This is one of the most successful methods to help your child stop if used correctly. These aids have air holes that prevent suction but allow your child to engage in daily activities comfortably. Consult your dentist for recommendations on thumb guards or other devices.

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    5. Apply bad-tasting nail polish

    While not always foolproof, some children may respond to the taste deterrent of bad-tasting nail polish. Experiment with different brands to find one that your child finds less tolerable.  

    6. Avoid ridiculing the behavior

    Yes, this is a list of things you should do, but we’d be remiss not to make note of this potentially harmful tactic. Ridiculing, teasing, or punishing for thumb-sucking can affect your child’s well-being and self-esteem. A more upbeat approach is a better way to support your child in the short- and long-term.

    7. Have a heart-to-heart conversation

    If your child is older, engage in a heartfelt conversation about the implications of thumb-sucking. Discuss the spread of germs, potential dental issues, the risk of bullying, and speech impediments. Frame these discussions positively to encourage understanding.

    Germs

    Remind your child that hands in the mouth are one way to spread germs and get sick. Kids don't want to be sick and miss out on school, activities, sports, and time with friends. Staying healthy is a good incentive!

    Serious dental work

    If your child is old enough to have this conversation, their thumb-sucking habit has likely done some damage already. They may be able to minimize the chances of needing a palate expander among additional orthodontic interventions. Show them pictures of the interventions, share what foods they may have to avoid as a result, and explain that the interventions can be painful for them - and expensive for you!

    Bullying

    It's important each child recognizes they are amazing - thumb-sucking or not. Some kids may be impacted by peer pressure and want to fit in and not be ridiculed. This is a hard one to talk about because you don't want to make them feel bad or guilty about thumb sucking, but instead gently explain that some kids may pick on them for sucking their thumb.

    Speech impediments: difficulty saying certain letters come with the habit of thumb sucking when the palate has changed shape and doesn't allow for placement of the tongue where it is supposed to be when forming certain sounds. It may make it much tougher for a child to learn to speak correctly and require extra services, which can come with some frustration.

    8. Use sleep interventions

    Consider short-term solutions like putting socks on your child’s hands during sleep or cloth covers during the day. While these may act as reminders, it's crucial to approach them as complementary measures.

    Can Children Stop on Their Own?

    Most children typically stop sucking their thumbs during elementary school. However, if they haven't stopped by then, peer pressure often plays a role in encouraging them to quit as they grow older. Although they may still find comfort in sucking their thumb privately or at night, they can control this behavior.

    While dentists often advise intervening to prevent potential damage, not all pediatricians share the same recommendations. Ultimately, the decision to actively discourage thumb-sucking is a personal one that should be made by each family, considering their own needs and their children's unique personalities. 

    Avoiding excessive pressure is important, as this can be counterproductive and cause more harm than good. Therefore, carefully evaluate the situation before taking action. Have questions or want support? Blueberry Pediatrics is here for you and your family. 

    Blueberry offers unlimited, on-demand access to board-certified pediatricians via text, phone, or video. Our pediatric team can provide guidance on a range of common childhood symptoms, illnesses, and questions - no question is too big or too small! 

    The best part? Families get unlimited visits for every child in their household for one low monthly or annual fee. It's like having a doctor's office in your house. Sign up to chat with a pediatrician right away.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Is thumb sucking bad?

    Thumb sucking is a common behavior in babies and toddler. The habit typiclly begins as a wy to self soothe. While the behavior itself is not bad, prolonged sucking can have adverse effects on their teeth, mouth, and speech.

    Why do babies suck their thumb?

    The sucking reflex is an innate behavior babies have to suckle their milk and get nutrition. Over time, the behavior may become a mechanism for them to self-soothe.