Thumb sucking: Help your child break the habit

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Thumb sucking: Help your child break the habit

Thumb sucking is a common habit among children. If your child sucks his or her thumb for too long, however, it might be a habit that you'd like to break. Start by finding out what's behind thumb sucking — and understanding ways to stop the behavior.

Why do some children suck their thumbs?

Babies have natural rooting and sucking reflexes, which can cause them to put their thumbs or fingers into their mouths — sometimes even before birth. Because thumb sucking is soothing to babies, some may eventually develop a habit of thumb sucking when they're bored, tired or anxious. Many children who suck their thumbs or fingers do so while holding a treasured object, such as a security blanket.

How long does thumb sucking usually last?

Many thumb and finger suckers stop the habit on their own by age 6 or 7 months. Sometimes, however, children suck their thumbs or fingers — especially during times of stress — throughout the toddler and preschool years.

When should I intervene?

Thumb sucking isn't usually a concern until age 4 or 5, when the habit may start to affect the roof of the mouth (palate) or how the teeth line up. If your child is frequently thumb sucking at age 5 or the thumb sucking is causing dental problems or embarrassment, talk to your child about breaking the habit.

What can I do to stop my child's thumb sucking?

Consider these techniques for breaking the habit:

  • Gentle reminders. When you see your child thumb sucking, gently remind him or her to stop. Avoid criticizing or ridiculing your child, which can create stress and teach your child that thumb sucking is an attention-getting behavior.
  • Positive reinforcement. Praise your child or provide small rewards — such as an extra bedtime story or a trip to the park — when he or she isn't thumb sucking. Place stickers on a calendar to record the days when your child successfully avoids thumb sucking.
  • Competing response. Encourage your child to do something else, such as squeeze a pillow or stuffed animal, when he or she feels the urge to suck his or her thumb or fingers.

As a last resort, you might consider an aversive treatment. Examples include covering the thumbnail with vinegar or another bitter substance, or a bandage, sock or glove. You might also use a thumb guard — an adjustable plastic cylinder that can be taped to the thumb. These techniques, however, are rarely recommended. In addition, if your child's teeth are severely misaligned, your child's dentist may install an oral device that prevents the fingers or thumb from putting pressure on the palate or teeth.

What if these techniques don't work?

For a few children, thumb sucking is an incredibly difficult habit to break. Be patient. Keep in mind that peer pressure causes most children to stop daytime sucking habits on their own after they start school. In the meantime, try not to worry. Putting too much pressure on your child to stop thumb sucking may do more harm than good.

Last Updated: 2010-07-07
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