How to Get a Child to Stop Sucking Their Thumb

How to Get a Child to Stop Sucking Their Thumb
Photo: TY Lim, Shutterstock
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All babies are born with the instinct to root and suck — it is, of course, what helps them feed even seconds after birth. That instinct can cause them to also suck on their fingers or thumb during non-feeding times, too, because it can be soothing and help them feel secure. If they get into the thumb-sucking habit, most kids will eventually quit on their own — but if they’re getting to be between ages 2 and 4 and they’re still going strong, you may want to consider intervening.

The main concern with thumb-sucking starts when a child’s permanent teeth begin coming in. As the American Academy of Pediatrics says:

If your child sucks strongly on a pacifier or his thumb or fingers beyond 2 to 4 years of age, this behaviour may affect the shape of his mouth or how his teeth are lining up. If your child stops sucking on a pacifier or his thumb or ­fingers before his permanent front teeth come in, there’s a good chance his bite will correct itself. However, if the bite does not correct itself and the upper adult teeth are sticking out, orthodontic treatment may be needed to realign the teeth and help prevent broken front teeth.

Getting a child to stop a habit that soothes them, though — especially when the thing that soothes them is literally with them all the time — is easier said than done. But there are some ways to help them break the habit in a positive, healthy way.

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Talk about it

Until it really becomes a concern, the best way to deal with thumb-sucking is to ignore it; more often than not, a child will simply outgrow the habit. When it’s time to intervene, though, the first thing to do is talk to them about it. This might seem pretty basic, but it’s a step that should not be skipped. Once they’re old enough that the thumb-sucking becomes a problem, they’re also just about old enough to understand why. And the why is not because it makes them look babyish — teasing is not helpful here — but because you want to help make sure their big-kid teeth grow in properly.

If a child understands why it’s time to cease the habit and takes some ownership in choosing the method along with you, they’re more likely to be successful. You could start by suggesting they choose a cute sticker to place on their thumbnail or a pick a Band-Aid to wrap around the thumb to have the physical reminder every time it touches their tongue.

Identify their triggers

Once you start really paying attention, you’ll probably notice they have certain triggers for a lot of their thumb-sucking. Whether they do it to fall asleep, while they’re watching TV, or as a way to cope with stress, figuring out what often prompts the habit can be helpful in identifying specific tactics to curb it.

If they tend to mindlessly suck on their thumb while they’re watching TV, find another way to help keep their hands or mouth busy. You might offer them a stress ball to squeeze or buy a chewable necklace to help them transition out of the habit. If they suck their thumb to fall asleep, you could purchase a new blanket or stuffed animal for them to cuddle instead. If they tend to suck their thumb to soothe themselves in moments of stress or sadness, come up with other mindfulness techniques to help calm them down.

If stress or anxiety is a trigger, make sure you’re also not trying to break the habit while they’re already going through a stressful time, such as during a big move or at the start of a new school year. They’ll be more successful when they’re not also combatting additional stress.

Go heavy on the positive reinforcement

Especially as you begin to help them break the habit, if it’s one they’ve had for a significant amount of time, they’re going to find they do it often without even realising it — so they’ll need you to be more vigilant and to offer them gentle, encouraging reminders.

But like with any problem behaviour you want to eliminate, it’s even more helpful to recognise and praise the behaviour you do want to see whenever you catch them doing it. Verbally acknowledge what a good job they’re doing when they’re not sucking on their thumb, particularly during what you know to be a trigger time for them.

For extra encouragement, you might also try setting up a sticker chart or reward system of some kind. For example, if they go a whole day without sucking their thumb, they get to read an extra book with you at bedtime. If you’ve tried all of this and you’re still not making progress, it’s time to ask their paediatrician or dentist for more recommendations for safe, non-anxiety-inducing methods you might try.

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