How do I stop my child’s thumb sucking?

“All I want for Christmas is my baby to stop sucking her thumb. It’s such a terrible habit. Help me, please. How can I stop the thumb-sucking? —Concerned for my baby’s teeth”

We receive emails like this and are constantly talking to parents about this topic. Thumb-sucking is a totally natural and normal behavior in young children. Babies are born with the natural urge to suck —  on pacifiers, their fingers, thumb, toys, and anything else they can shove in their little mouths. This action is calming and comforting, and one that likely began before they were even born. To your baby, their thumb is a cure-all: sleepy, scared, bored, or sick. Their thumb helps them learn and understand that they are okay, that they can be calm, and secure.

During infancy and early toddlerhood, thumb-sucking is nothing to worry about. The American Dental Association (ADA) has proven the practice mostly harmless; most children who suck their thumb will do so without ever damaging the alignment of teeth or gums. Because most children will drop the habit on their own between the ages of two and four. So, if your baby is six months, eight months, fourteen months — please don’t worry about it.

However, if your child is nearing the age of four, there are a few things you can do help wean them from the thumb. Prolonged thumb-sucking can lead speech delays, lisp, and malocclusion (or a pushing outward) of the front teeth, which may require orthodontic treatment to correct. It seems here is where your fears lie, and you should know we understand. There are a few simple, easy steps you can take to end your child’s thumb sucking for good.

  • Distract. It’s become a habit. Watching TV, hanging out on the couch with mom on Saturday morning: The thumb goes in the mouth. Instead, offer a ball to bounce or a stuffed animal to snuggle, anything that might distract them.
  • Set Limits: Establish clear and consistent rules about thumb sucking, such as only allowing it at bedtime or in certain situations. Gradually reduce the times when thumb sucking is permitted.
  • Offer praise and provide Gentle Reminders: Remind your child gently and calmly to stop sucking their thumb whenever you notice them doing it. Avoid nagging or criticizing, as this may increase their anxiety and make thumb sucking worse.
  • Observe. Try to understand why they are still sucking their thumb, and respond accordingly. She or he sucks because they’re tired? Move their bedtime up a little, or let them nap a little longer. If they do it because they are feeling anxious or frustrated, help them use their words.
  • Identify Triggers: Pay attention to situations or emotions that trigger thumb sucking, and offer alternative coping mechanisms. For example, if your child sucks their thumb when they’re anxious, teach them deep breathing exercises or provide a stress-relief toy.

Your child is a whole little person with their own needs and desires, and maybe right now thumb-sucking is among them; it won’t last forever. Remember that breaking the thumb-sucking habit takes time and patience. Be supportive, understanding, and consistent in your approach, and celebrate small victories along the way. Work with them to break the habit when it’s time, if it’s necessary, but don’t ever shame or punish them for that which comes so natural.

If you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact Smilez Pediatric Dental Group team in Loudoun County at (703) 947-0951. Good luck! 🙂