Thumb sucking is a common habit among children. At some point, though, you might think, "Enough is enough." Here's help encouraging your child 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 might 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 children stop sucking their thumbs on their own sometime during the toddler years — between ages 2 and 4. For older kids who continue to suck their thumbs, peer pressure at school usually ends the habit.
Remember, though, even a child who's stopped sucking his or her thumb might revert to the behavior when he or she is stressed or anxious.
When should I intervene?
Thumb sucking isn't usually a concern until a child's permanent teeth come in. At this point, thumb sucking might begin to affect the roof of the mouth (palate) or how the teeth line up — especially if the thumb sucking is aggressive.
Consider stepping in if:
- Your child sucks his or her thumb frequently or aggressively after age 4 or 5
- The thumb sucking is causing dental problems, such as the upper front teeth tipping toward the lip
- Your child is embarrassed about the thumb sucking
What can I do to encourage my child to stop thumb sucking?
Consider these techniques:
- Don't mention it. In some cases, paying no attention to thumb sucking is enough to stop the behavior — especially if your child uses thumb sucking as a way to get attention.
- Use 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.
- Identify triggers. If your child sucks his or her thumb in response to stress, identify the real issue and provide comfort in other ways — such as a hug or reassuring words. You might also give your child a pillow or stuffed animal to squeeze.
- Offer gentle reminders. If your child sucks his or her thumb without thought — rather than as a way to get your attention — gently remind him or her to stop. Don't scold, criticize or ridicule your child. To spare embarrassment in front of others, you might alert your child to the thumb sucking with a special hand signal or other private cue.
Can the dentist help?
If you're concerned about the effect of thumb sucking on your child's teeth, check with the dentist.
For some kids, a chat with the dentist about why it's important to stop thumb sucking is more effective than a talk with mom or dad.
In other cases, the dentist might recommend a special mouth guard or other dental appliance that interferes with sucking.
Should I try negative reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is generally more effective than negative reinforcement. Resist the temptation to use aversive techniques, such as covering your child's thumbnail with vinegar or another bitter substance.
What if nothing works?
For some children, thumb sucking is an incredibly difficult habit to break. Remember, though, peer pressure typically leads kids to stop daytime sucking habits on their own when they start school.
In the meantime, try not to worry. Putting too much pressure on your child to stop thumb sucking might only delay the process.