Many infants and young children calm
themselves by sucking their thumbs. While most children will stop on their own
between ages 3 and 6, some continue past the age of 4 or 5. Prolonged
thumb-sucking can lead to serious dental and speech problems. By using lots of
love, encouragement, and a few simple steps, you can help your child succeed in
breaking the thumb-sucking habit.
Motivate your child by talking to
him or her about why it is important to stop thumb-sucking. Explain that
stopping will help him or her have a beautiful smile and nice teeth. Let your
child know that continuing will cause problems with how his or her teeth
Use a mirror to show your child the changes
happening to his or her teeth or mouth shape.
Talk about the
unhealthy germs that are on our hands and how the child puts the germs in his
or her mouth by thumb-sucking.
Talk to your child about becoming a
"big boy" or "big girl" by stopping thumb-sucking. Remind your child that he or
she may be teased for continuing thumb-sucking.
Make sure you choose the right time to have this
discussion. Children often suck their thumbs to relieve stress. Picking a
stress-free time will help the child succeed. Also, a child probably needs to
be 4 or 5 in order to understand your reasoning and to be able to cooperate in
Practical ways to help your child quit
For the first week, keep your child's hands
busy with puzzles, games, crafts, or other favorite activities. You may need to
limit TV time since many children unconsciously suck their thumbs while
You may wish to use a bandage or a
bad-tasting substance such as Thum that is painted on the fingernail to remind
your child not to suck the thumb. If the bandage or coating comes off, replace
it without being critical or embarrassing your child.
remove your child's thumb from his or her mouth during sleep. Thumb-sucking at
night is the most difficult habit to break. It may take up to 3 months before
your child is able to fall asleep without thumb-sucking. Try offering a
favorite stuffed animal or putting a hand puppet on your child's hand at
bedtime as a reminder. Gently explain to your child that if he or she continues
to suck the thumb during the night, the habit will not go away and the changes
to the mouth will continue to occur.
Avoid putting your child in situations that are upsetting while
he or she is trying to break the thumb-sucking habit. Your child will likely
turn to thumb-sucking for comfort. Make sure your child gets enough sleep and
food during this time.
Offer plenty of praise when your child goes
without thumb-sucking during an activity that normally would have included that
habit. Do not shame or punish your child for thumb-sucking. This will only lower his or her
Throughout this process, provide empathy and encouragement,
and be available for your child. Acknowledge that this is a difficult habit to
break. If you are consistent, patient, and positive, your child will be more
likely to succeed. Remember this is your child's habit to break, and he or she
must be willing to cooperate. Do not force your child to comply.
Rewarding your child
Small rewards are a great way to motivate your child. If you reward your child often
and regularly for not thumb-sucking, he or she is more likely to
Set a goal for how long your child will try to
go without thumb-sucking. Start with one day, or even part of a day. Then aim
for longer periods. Let your child pick a reward for reaching that goal.
During the first week, reward your child on the first day. Then
reward him or her every other day for good progress. Rewards might be small
toys, markers, a favorite treat, or a privilege like
a trip to the park.
During the second
week, use a calendar or a progress chart that identifies the days of the week.
Let your child put stickers on or mark the days he or she has gone without
After the first goal is reached, set a new, longer
goal. For example, if the first goal was 2 weeks without thumb-sucking, the
next goal could be 4 or 6 weeks. After this goal is reached, set another, such
as 3 months. Make sure your child is rewarded for reaching every
If your child can't break the habit
Some children have a more difficult time than
others giving up thumb-sucking. It is important to use positive reinforcement
during this process.
Try using gentle reminders such
as placing a bandage on the thumb so your child is aware when the thumb goes in
his or her mouth. You can also try using fingernail coating made for stopping
thumb-sucking, such as Thum. It tastes bad when the child places the thumb in
the mouth. Be sure to let your child know the coating is not punishment but
merely a reminder not to suck the thumb.
If your child is
insecure, has any emotional problems, or is under
stress and needs comforting, you may need to resolve
those issues first before your child will succeed at stopping
If your child continues
thumb-sucking, you may want to speak to a
dentist to learn about devices (such as a thumb guard)
that can be tried to prevent thumb-sucking.
Susan C. Kim, MD - Pediatrics
Thomas Emmett Francoeur, MD, MDCM, CSPQ, FRCPC - Pediatrics
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.