9 Easy Ways to Stop Thumb Sucking for Good

9 Easy Ways to Stop Thumb Sucking for Good

 Whitney DiFoggio BS, RDH
Written by Whitney DiFoggio BS, RDH
Medical Reviewed on Oct 17, 2023
byDr. Matthew Hannan DDS
🔬 Evidence Based
9 Easy Ways to Stop Thumb Sucking for Good

Do you have a thumb sucker in your family? If the thumb, finger, or even pacifier-sucking habit has stuck around longer than it should, breaking the habit can be especially tough. Especially compared to something like a pacifier since they’re literally carrying their thumb around with them everywhere. Knowing how to stop thumb sucking effectively (and gently) can help break the habit before serious issues like changes in facial anatomy and tooth misalignment occur. 

Why Do Children Suck Their Thumbs?

As a result of the natural sucking reflex, babies acquire the skill of thumb sucking to extract nutrition by suckling their milk. Since finding their thumb at such a young age, thumb sucking or finger sucking is a natural soothing and coping mechanism that is extremely common in infants and toddlers. However, some children go on to continue sucking their thumbs for a variety of reasons. It may be that they simply do it to soothe themselves because of anxiety, stress, or to help put themselves to sleep at night. Many kids suck their thumbs because of the comfort it provides. Some experts even believe that societal pressures like school and home environments can make certain children more likely to thumb suck into adolescence.

Most kids will give up thumb sucking after toddlerhood, but others need a little extra help from their family before their habit leads to dental problems with permanent teeth.

Dental Risks With Thumb Sucking 

Your child’s mouth is rapidly growing and developing. From new teeth coming in to the maturation of their jaw bones, their face is under a state of continual change until they near the age of adulthood. Just like braces apply pressure to move teeth, repeated sucking motions or the presence of a thumb (or pacifier) in your child’s mouth can lead to changes in the shape of their facial structures. 

Some of the most common risks we see in prolonged thumb sucking includes the following:

  • Overjets, where their upper teeth splay outward
  • Open bites, where the upper and lower teeth do not physically close together
  • Underbites, where the lower jaw is recessed further back than it should be
  • Speech impediments due to changes in tooth and jaw alignment
  • TMJ disorder, because of bite and jaw discrepancies
  • Breathing and sleep disturbances due to changes in the shape of the mouth and hard palate

When Should Children Stop Thumb Sucking? 

If you have a toddler that is a thumb sucker, now is the ideal time to start helping them break the habit. Generally, most children stop sucking their thumb by the time they’re 2-3 years old and definitely before you send them to school. If they suck their thumb past that age, it’s not a matter of if you should help stop them from thumb sucking but how quickly you can work together to accomplish the goal. The same can be said for using a pacifier, bottle, or sippy cup. 

Sometimes kids quit sucking their thumbs because they learn to put themselves to sleep or self-soothe in other ways. Especially since they’re older and able to communicate verbally with their parents. Others may do it out of social pressure. But even then, some children will have a harder time than others with breaking a thumb sucking habit. Don’t count on them to do it on their own. Know when to help. If they’re already in preschool, it’s well past time. 

How To Stop Thumb Sucking Habit

Not every thumb sucker can quit the habit cold turkey. It may take a few methods—along with trial and error—to figure out what works in your family. Some kids pick up on the action really quickly, while others may take at least a few months of consistent reminders to be successful. 

Here are just a few things you can try:

1. Praise And Reward

The most important thing to remember when you’re trying to figure out how to stop thumb sucking is to keep things positive. Try not to dwell on the negative. Talk to your child about their goal and how, together, you’re going to work toward helping them achieve it. Each time you catch your child trying not to suck their thumb, be sure to verbally praise them for the great job they’re doing. Positive reinforcement helps kids feel seen, comforted, and reassured that they’re on the right track; it’s a great way to start the process of becoming a “former” thumb sucker. Parents are advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics not to put too much pressure on your child to stop sucking their thumb.

2. Slowly Wean Off Thumb Sucking

Giving up thumb sucking or a pacifier does not happen overnight. It takes time, practice, and a whole lot of grace. In all honesty, shoot for more like a few weeks to a month instead of just a couple of days. Your child has been a thumb sucker for months, if not years, so breaking the habit is going to take a little time. 

3. Thumb Guards

There are special thumb guard devices out there that are made to go over your child’s thumb and are strapped around their hand. The part over the thumb is like a thick plastic splint or tube, making it downright impossible to suck their thumb even if they wanted to. 

Sometimes—usually in more extreme circumstances—dentists can also place a special appliance on your child’s teeth. These devices are usually used for habits like tongue thrusting, but they can help with breaking a thumb sucking habit, too. 

4. Keep Hands Busy

Boredom or just sitting still is enough to trigger thumb sucking. If you know you’ll be taking a long car ride, a trip to the store, or sitting in a doctor’s office for a while, make sure your child has something to keep them occupied. 

5. Teach Ways to Cope

Anxiety is real and not all of us cope with it as well as others. Especially if there are stressors we can’t control, like the death of a family member (or pet,) changing schools, or the birth of a new sibling! Since stress can trigger soothing habits like thumb sucking, it’s important to help your child learn other ways to relax. Such as playing outside to get some exercise and vitamin D, breathing patterns, coloring or working a puzzle, or talking to someone about their feelings.

6. Milestone Rewards

This is a big one. Print out a calendar for the month and buy a pack of stickers. Then sit down and figure out a reward for the end of the month. Maybe it’s a trip to their favorite indoor trampoline park, a new game, a toy, or going to the zoo. Have your child put a sticker on every day that they go without sucking their thumb. Chances are, it might take a few weeks to get through the first week; you may even want to consider smaller rewards as you conquer each milestone. At the end of a month completely free of thumb sucking, gift them with their reward for all of their hard work. 

7. Fidget Toys Or A Stress Ball

If your child sucks their thumb when they’re anxious or stressed about something, try to find them an alternative toy to fidget with. Like a pop-it/push pop toy, fidget spinner, or stress cube. Keeping them distracted is the key to taking their mind off of sucking their thumb or even biting their nails. 

Most of these fidget toys are fairly small, so it’s easy to keep them in your purse, car, or backpack at school if they need to occupy their hands. 

8. Physical Interventions 

For infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, the best thing to do if they suck their thumb at bedtime is to place something over their hands. This can be a pair of baby mittens, socks, or even a pair of gloves. Try not to use anything that ties, since it could become a strangulation hazard. 

Using a bad tasting nail polish is typically ineffective since children often desire to suck on their fingers and can withstand the unpleasant taste.

9. Don't Scold Your Child

It’s almost instinctive for us to get onto our children when they make a bad choice or doing something they shouldn’t, including sucking their thumb. But because thumb sucking is often a way of soothing themselves, scolding your child may only make matters worse. 

If your child is old enough to realize they need to stop sucking their thumb—and you scold them when you see them doing it—chances are they will only hide the habit from you. When you’re more understanding of the issue and talk to them about it gently, it makes the process more of a team effort.

Preventing Thumb Sucking

If you have a baby who doesn’t suck their thumb, don’t encourage it. Yes, it’s a natural pacifier that doesn’t get lost in the middle of the night, but that also means you can’t easily take it away once it’s time to break a thumb sucking habit. 

As a new parent, you can help prevent thumb sucking by having your infant wear protective mittens over their hands (bonus points, this also prevents them from scratching their face.) If they really need something to suck on, you might be able to encourage something different and removable, like a pacifier, instead of a thumb, so that it can “disappear” later on.

Preventing your baby from becoming a thumb sucker can help save you a world of troubles later on, like trying to figure out how to stop a thumb sucking habit. Remember what they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”

Talk With Your Dentist

Helping the thumb sucker in your family can take a group effort. Be sure to talk to your family or pediatric dentist about tips and tricks to help kick the habit for good. Some dentists can even order special appliances for you to help your older child stop sucking their thumb when other behavioral modification techniques don’t work. 

 Whitney DiFoggio BS, RDH
Written by Whitney DiFoggio BS, RDH"Teeth Talk Girl," is a registered dental hygienist. She started her dental health journey on YouTube, educating the public through videos.
Dr. Matthew  Hannan DDS
Medical Reviewed byDr. Matthew Hannan DDSDr. Matthew Hannan is a board-certified dentist and graduate of UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry.
Last updated onNovember 2, 2023Here is our process

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