Thumb Sucking: How To Help Break The Habit

It’s a common issue, and it’s a very natural reflex for children to take to thumb sucking. It’s called non-nutritive sucking. Sucking on thumbs, fingers, pacifiers or anything else they can get their hands on helps with feeling happy and secure in a young child’s mind.

We’ve discussed the topic of choosing between a pacifier and a thumb, but what do you do when your child should stop sucking their thumb? Today, we’re going to discuss exactly that and give you our guide to wean your little one off the thumb!

young child thumb sucking

As a baby, thumb sucking is quite natural and can help soothe and calm them, often to sleep (which helps you get some sleep as well). But as a child gets older, it can pose a problem.

Sucking can disrupt proper placement of primary teeth, causing bigger headaches down the road when their permanent counterparts begin growing in. Ultimately, it is up to you when to start this process, but once the permanent teeth come in, thumb sucking causes problems with proper growth and alignment of teeth. These factors can result in the need for braces or the development of a lisp, which can take years of speech therapy to fix.

Usually, as your child grows and interacts with other children, social behavioral cues will guide them to quit. It doesn’t happen that way all the time though, so you may need to help you child overcome thumb sucking.

It’s important to outline the phrase “help them” because alienating your child through shaming or force is not the correct manner to subdue their urge, and could backfire. So, what can you do instead?

  • Make it a team effort. Instead of ordering them to quit, ask them questions that lead them to the conclusion that it’s time to stop. For example, telling them that you’ve noticed they are getting old enough to quit and asking if they have any ideas on what to do about it.
  • If they don’t have any ideas, offering up a solution is better than a command. Something as simple as suggesting putting a Band-Aid over their thumb, and letting them pick out a fun design, could be exactly what the doctor ordered!
  • Praise them for when they aren’t thumb sucking, rather than scolding them for when they do. Coming up with an unconventional signal (like an ear tug or hand sign) that you can use in public and be discreet with can help avoid a sense of shame that could drive them to the habit even more.
  • If you decide to go the route of putting an unsavory tasting substance on their finger or nail, do not use something spicy. Use something simple like vinegar, or lemon juice, but only if the child agrees to it. We feel it’s best to avoid negative reinforcement if possible. Getting your child to want to quit is key.

Noticing the triggers in your child is also integral to their success. Do they do it before bedtime, or while watching TV? Maybe they do it when they are anxious or are sad. Noticing these and making an effort through one of the methods above will help them feel like it’s a team effort.

Above all, being patient with your little one is key, and don’t be afraid to offer praise and maybe even a reward along the way!