Does Your Toddler Suck Their Thumb? How To (Gently) Break The Habit

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
How To Stop Thumb Sucking
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

This article has been medically reviewed by Howard Orel, MD. Board-certified and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Orel runs an active general pediatric practice, Advocare Marlton Pediatrics. He also serves as CEO of Advocare — one of the largest independent medical groups in the country.

When babies suck their thumbs, it’s kind of adorable. Once a child creeps into the toddler years, though, the habit isn’t seen as cute as much as it is a one-way ticket for germs straight into their mouths. And for some children, thumb sucking takes a lot longer to outgrow. It’s a tough habit to break, sure, but it’s also a self-soothing strategy that may have helped your little one calm down in situations when they were upset.

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And yes, we all want to do our best for our kids. But walking around in public with an older child who is still sucking their thumb can be hard on us, too — feeling as though the people who notice are silently judging us. (Or, in situations when strangers think it’s appropriate to dole out unsolicited parenting advice, not-so-silently judging us.) Maybe you’ve tried getting your child to use a thumb-sucking guard and have had limited (or no) success. Either way, there are other strategies for how to stop thumb sucking in kids, and we’re here to help.

Why Kids Suck Their Thumbs

Thumb sucking is a common self-soothing technique for babies and toddlers — though some are more reliant on it than others. According to the Mayo Clinic, many children simply stop sucking their thumbs on their own, often by the time they’re six or seven months old. The remainder of kids typically wean themselves off their thumb between the ages of two and four. Granted, even once a child no longer sucks their thumb on a daily/nightly basis, they may still occasionally do so during periods when they’re especially nervous or stressed.

When to Intervene

As a parent, how do you know if your child will gradually stop sucking their thumb on their own? Or when they might need a little assistance in that area? Experts disagree on a specific age, but as a general rule, thumb sucking isn’t seen as a major concern until a child’s permanent teeth grow in. At that point, a child’s thumb-sucking habit could cause their teeth to grow improperly aligned, or it could impact the roof of their mouth. If you’re worried about how your child’s thumb sucking affects their oral health, it’s a good idea to talk to your/their dentist.

How to Stop Your Child From Sucking Their Thumb

There are a few different ways to approach thumb sucking with your child, starting by easing your way into the conversation. Here are a few ways to do that, courtesy of the University of Michigan Health System (UMHS):

  • Explain why they might want to stop sucking their thumb, including that it could change their teeth/smile. Pay attention to your child’s triggers and when they put their thumbs in their mouths. This will help you get to the root of the problem. Then talk it out and discuss alternatives to managing their stress or discomfort. Sometimes hearing reassuring words is enough.
  • Avoid scolding or disciplining your child for sucking their thumb. Fixing this behavior is a process that requires patience and understanding.
  • Bring up the concept of germs, pointing out that they’re putting germs in their mouth anytime they put their thumb inside of it.
  • Pick a time when your child isn’t already stressed about something.

Next, try one (or more) of these practical strategies to discourage thumb sucking:

  • Keep their hands busy so that their thumbs are engaged.
  • Limit TV or screen time if that usually results in thumb sucking.
  • Help your child avoid stressful situations when they’re trying to quit thumb sucking (to reduce their chances of a relapse).
  • Be consistent: Don’t have different rules for different occasions.
  • Be supportive, encouraging, and provide positive reinforcement when they show signs of progress.
  • Seek outside advice. Sometimes our kids listen more to the television or YouTube. Take advantage of that and find a video or program that talks about thumb sucking and why kids shouldn’t do it. Sometimes children are more apt to take advice from a Disney or Sesame Street character.

If these techniques aren’t working, it may be time to call in some professional help. If the thumb sucking is stress- or anxiety-induced, it may be helpful to speak with a counselor to get to the root of these feelings. You can also discuss the situation with your pediatrician, including whether a thumb-sucking guard might help.

Should I use a pacifier to replace the thumb?

Honestly, neither are great options. Sucking your thumb comes with the risk of consuming bacteria, and pediatric dentists recommend dropping pacifiers by age two to avoid dental issues. Both pacifiers and finger sucking can affect your child’s teeth and are easy habits to form. Your toddler just might be trading in one vice for the other, which kind of defeats the purpose.

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