Helping Your Child Stop the Thumb Sucking


If you’re starting to worry about your child’s thumb sucking, they’re likely getting too old for it. It’s completely natural and even beneficial for them to suck their fingers and thumbs when they’re infants. They’re figuring out how their mouth works and what those hands are for. Sucking is instinctual and very soothing.

As toddlers and young children, they may continue to suck their thumbs for comfort and security. You may notice this happens when they’re scared, feel vulnerable, or had something taken away from them. They may have used thumb-sucking to get through something upsetting, like a parent leaving for work. It’s soothing, so it becomes a habit. It becomes a way to relax, which is why children do it more in the evenings or when they’re tired.

Will Your Child Simply Outgrow It?

Ideally, most children do somewhere between ages 2 – 4. But if your child is beyond that, and permanent teeth are coming in, it’s probably time for some gentle redirection. You don’t want the habit to get carried into school age where it may take peer pressure to stop. By then, there could be issues with their mouth and teeth alignment. 

Can Prolonged Thumb-Sucking Cause Dental or Orthodontic Problems?

Yes. We see it here in our office fairly frequently. 

There’s a big difference between a child who sucks passively resting their thumb in their mouth and a child who sucks vigorously. The more active the sucking, the greater the impact. You’ll know if your child is the latter by the popping sound you hear when they pull their thumb out of their mouth.

Thumb sucking after the permanent teeth are in can affect the proper growth of the mouth and alignment of teeth. It can also change the roof of the mouth. In children who are more vigorous, even baby teeth can be affected. This is one of the many reasons we recommend an orthodontic evaluation by age 7 – sooner if they’re sucking their thumb. We can monitor the development of their mouth and if we see an issue forming, we can correct it before it becomes a bigger problem later. 

How Can Parents Stop the Thumb Sucking?

The first thing is to recognize that you can’t break this habit for your child. Dr. Demko always tells her patients directly, “You need to decide to stop sucking your thumb.” Putting that little nugget of responsibility on a young child can be empowering.  

The second thing, equally important, is that pressuring your child to stop, or even showing your frustration over it, can have the opposite effect. Children who suck their thumbs when they’re anxious will feel more anxious under pressure, or when sensing your disappointment.

Here are some helpful tips:

  1. Encourage the decision: Let your child know this is a big kid decision they can make and feel good about it.
  2. Use positive reinforcement: Never scold or call out the thumb sucking but notice and praise it when they are happily playing and not sucking their thumb.
  3. Focus on the cause: Try to notice what is happening when your child starts sucking and work to ease the feelings of insecurity or stress. 
  4. Reward small breakthroughs: Notice and reward your child when they get through something difficult without thumb-sucking.
  5. Talk to your dentist or orthodontist: It always helps when an adult other than parents talk to children. Dr. Demko is always happy to gently explain to your child why they need to decide to stop.
  6. Last resort – make it yucky: If all else fails, Dr. Demko can prescribe a bitter medication to make that thumb too yucky to suck. For nighttime habits, bandaging the thumb can work.

As always, if you ever have questions about your child’s oral care, we are happy to guide you through it. Contact our office to learn more.