Getting Over Thumb-Sucking

little boy sucking his thumb

Thumb-sucking is a completely natural act of self-soothing that many babies begin when they are still in the womb. But while an infant sucking his thumb may look sweet and innocent, a five-year-old sucking his thumb may become the object of pity or ridicule. So at what point does thumb-sucking become a bad habit? And how can you help a thumb-sucker find other ways to soothe himself?

Transitioning Away From Thumb-Sucking

Most doctors agree that thumb-sucking is relatively harmless in the early years of childhood. In fact, if you make too big of a deal of it before age four and try to get your child to stop, your efforts may backfire and cause him or her to want to do it even more. Most children eventually stop this habit on their own. However, if the thumb-sucking continues past age four or five, a child runs the risk of developing dental or speech problems.

little girl thumb sucking

Those who continue to suck their thumbs in the early preschool years most likely do it for comfort, or when they are tired or bored. If you believe that your child is old enough to stop thumb-sucking, you may try a few gentle techniques to get them out of the habit. One way to help them stop is to give them something to do with their hands or to help them find other ways to soothe themselves when they are nervous or sleepy. You could teach your child how to rub her fingers together with her thumb in a rhythmic, circular motion; or rub her temple or cheek with her forefinger. Another technique to get your child to stop thumb-sucking is to wrap her thumb in a bandage or piece of gauze. Of course, it won’t physically stop her from sucking her thumb, but it will give her a jarring reminder every time she absent-mindedly puts her thumb in her mouth. You may also apply a special non-toxic thumb coating or a bitter-tasting substance like vinegar to your child’s thumb to remind her not to suck (although some parents report that their children get used to or even grow to like the taste after a while).

Strategies for Helping a Child Quit Thumb-Sucking

Throughout your efforts to end thumb-sucking, try to avoid humiliating or punishing your child for what is essentially a self-soothing activity. Give plenty of praise when you see your child doing something else besides thumb-sucking at a time when he would normally be putting his hands in his mouth. You may also set up a reward system such as a sticker chart for each day without thumb-sucking, culminating in a small present after a set amount of time.

toddler sucking her thumb

It’s time to be concerned if the thumb-sucking seems to start out of nowhere in an older child, if the frequency suddenly increases, or if it’s accompanied by more damaging repetitive habits like hair-pulling. You should also seek help if your child appears to have dental or speech difficulties as a result of the thumb-sucking. Additionally, if your child is being teased or asks you for help in stopping, it’s time for you to step in and take a more active role. Your doctor or pediatric dentist should be able to make an evaluation and find other ways for you to help your child.

In general, thumb-sucking is one of our most natural, reflexive behaviors and it shouldn’t be too much of a concern. But when it starts creating difficulties for your child (and therefore the parents as well), it’s time to help your child find some other acceptable (and more grown-up) ways to relax and put herself at ease.