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A Parenting Dialogue: How Do I Stop My Child Thumb-Sucking?

by Vannessa Rhoades 05 Jan 2024
parenting dialogue
A Parenting Dialogue: How Do I Stop My Child Thumb-Sucking?


So my little one had been sucking his thumb since he was a baby. Around two-and-a-half years old, we started trying to wean him off this habit. We successfully stopped all daytime sucking about three years old. Well then about three-and-a-half years old, we got COVID. We all were very sick for two weeks, so he started sucking again for comfort during this time. So we struggled again to get back on track and off the thumb, and now it's just not working.

I'm at my wits end over here, stressing that his mouth will be screwed up forever and that he'll have speech issues. I googled it, and some sources say, "He'll stop on his own! Don't sweat it!" and others say, "He's doomed for permanent issues if he doesn't stop by 4." So I guess what I'm asking is have any of you had a thumb-sucker (or been a thumb-sucker), what finally got the kid to stop, how old were they, and have you had any mouth/teeth/speech issues? I need to know how to stop thumb-sucking!

A Parenting Dialogue: How Do I Stop My Child Thumb-Sucking?


The New Mom


My younger brother took ages to stop. He was still sucking his thumb at 10 years old. No issues with teeth or speech, thankfully. My little one sucks his fingers right now. We tried to address it once about a year ago, and I heard him quietly crying in his bedroom in the middle of the night. He couldn’t soothe himself, and he didn’t want to go against us asking him not to. So his dad and I decided it wasn’t worth the emotional distress and that we would deal with the outcome later.

-- Shawn, mother of one toddler

The Experienced Mother


I was a thumb sucker. When I was born (mid-60s), my parents did all they could back then to get me to stop. They painted my thumb with stuff that was supposed to make it taste bad (didn’t work). I just sucked it off. It tasted terrible but didn’t deter me in the slightest. (That doesn’t mean it won’t work for others!)

I sucked my thumb until I was in second grade. What finally made me stop was growing up, and the social pressures associated with how infantile thumb-sucking was. I don’t remember it being a hard thing either. I just decided it wasn’t for me anymore and stopped.

I never had any issues with speech, but my mouth is absolutely deformed because of it. I am right-handed, so the right side of my hard palate permanently arches about twice as high as the left side and fits the shape of my thumb exactly. (My orthodontist always commented on how interesting my retainer looked with this deformity.) I had a bad overbite that wouldn’t have existed otherwise, and because my palate was deformed, my teeth on the right side of my mouth arch up in such a way to accommodate a thumb, if that makes sense. Braces straightened my teeth when I was younger, but I lost my retainer in college, and after another 20 years…you guessed it, my teeth moved to form an arch on the right side where my mouth was “deformed” around my thumb. Nobody really noticed it unless I pointed it out, and people thought I was nuts for doing Invisalign last year…but my teeth are now straight again, and my overbite is finally fixed despite the deformity. Make no mistake, though –  if I stop wearing my retainers everything will go right back.

Long story short: you had better believe that I went to extraordinary lengths to ensure none of my children were thumb-suckers!! I practically forced a binkie on them (because pacifiers can be taken away, but a thumb can’t). Fortunately for me, my kids never took the binkie either.

I honestly don’t have any constructive advice about how to get a child to stop sucking their thumb, because nothing worked for me until I was old enough to figure it out on my own. That said, I do wish my parents had just been more straightforward and communicated why I needed to stop. I’m not saying you should shame your child, but I feel like if my parents had drilled into me that it would deform my mouth, make my teeth crooked, cost a lot to fix, and explained that it’s not considered appropriate past a certain age, then may that would have helped.

-- Katie, mom of four grown children

The Doctors’ and Dentists’ Approach


Wondering how to stop a baby from sucking their thumb? No worries – according to the Mayo Clinic, it's quite normal. Babies are born with natural thumb-sucking instincts for comfort, even before they pop into the world. It's all good until it becomes a habit when they need soothing or snoozing. Most kids kick the habit on their own by age 6-7 months or between 2-4 years. But stress can bring it back, even in a kiddo who's quit.

When children are very young, thumb-sucking isn’t a big deal. However, after permanent teeth begin to emerge, this habit can impact proper mouth growth, teeth alignment, and the roof of the mouth, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Pacifiers pose similar risks but are often easier to quit. The intensity of sucking also plays a role, with passive thumb-resting causing fewer issues than vigorous sucking. Aggressive thumbsuckers may even encounter problems with their baby teeth.

So if you’re trying to figure out how to get a toddler to stop sucking their thumb, the Mayo Clinic suggests first simply talking it out with your little one. Success is more likely if they're on board. Here are a few easy ways to stop thumb-sucking from the medical experts:

  • Positive vibes: Praise or reward when they resist the urge to suck their thumb. Stickers on a calendar for the win!
  • Spot the triggers: If stress is the culprit, tackle the real issue with hugs or a favorite stuffed buddy.
  • Gentle reminders: If it's mindless thumb-sucking, kindly nudge them to stop. No scolding, please!
  • Give them a voice: If your child is a bit older, let them have a say in how they want to stop.

Talk to your dentist: They can chat with your child, boost their spirits, and spell out what might go wrong with their teeth if the thumb-sucking keeps up. Sometimes a dentist chat hits home better than mom or dad's talk. In rare cases, they might suggest funky solutions like bitter stuff on the thumb or thumb wraps at night.


    The Holistic Approach

    A:Remember, thumb-sucking is a natural instinct in infants and toddlers. Therefore, it's crucial for parents to approach the weaning process with gentleness and empathy. If your child has been unable to naturally outgrow thumb-sucking, consider these holistic strategies from Talk-Eat-Play Pediatric Therapy & Consulting Services that focus on addressing the root causes of thumb-sucking.

    • Uncover the why: Before delving into strategies, take a moment to understand why your child engages in thumb-sucking. Is it a need for oral stimulation, a response to boredom, or perhaps a form of comfort during anxious moments? Identifying the underlying reasons will guide your approach and enhance the effectiveness of the weaning process.
    • Offer positive reinforcement: For younger children, praise and positive reinforcement can be powerful motivators. Encourage your child verbally, and avoid scolding when reminders are necessary. Simple rewards, like stickers for every hour or day without thumb-sucking, can create a visual representation of progress and keep them motivated.
    • Brainstorm creative sleep solutions: For babies and toddlers who suck their thumbs while sleeping, consider practical solutions like sewing the sleeves of long-sleeve pajamas shut. By limiting access to their thumbs or fingers during sleep, you encourage alternative soothing methods and gently guide them away from the thumb-sucking habit.
    • Find comfort alternatives: If thumb-sucking serves as a source of comfort, explore alternative comfort objects. Let your child choose a special toy or blanket that can provide the same sense of security. Establishing a bedtime routine with calming activities like baths, massages, soothing sounds, or bedtime stories can also contribute to a comforting atmosphere.
    • Provide emotional outlet options: When thumb-sucking is linked to anxiety or restlessness, offer alternative outlets for these emotions. Introduce breathing exercises, meditation, or physical activities like swimming, biking, or dancing. Art, such as drawing mandalas, can also serve as a calming and focusing outlet for children.
    • Replace with socially appropriate tools: For children who seek oral stimulation, replace thumb-sucking with socially appropriate alternatives. Consider chewy tubes, tri-chew teethers, or other sturdy options for older children with teeth. These alternatives provide the necessary sensory input without resorting to thumb-sucking.
    • Try nighttime guards: If thumb-sucking persists during sleep, explore thumb and finger guards made of materials like hard plastic, soft silicone, or cotton. These guards can be used exclusively during sleep to prevent thumb-sucking without resorting to harsh measures.

    Use caution with extreme measures: Exercise caution with methods like nail polish, mittens taped around the hand, or casting fingers. While they may temporarily deter thumb-sucking, they may not address the root cause. Understanding your child's behavior is key to long-term success in overcoming thumb-sucking habits. Focus on holistic, gentle approaches that prioritize your child's emotional well-being throughout the weaning journey.

    A Parenting Dialogue: How Do I Stop My Child Thumb-Sucking?

    The Bottom Line

    In the process of weaning your child away from thumb-sucking, it's essential to embrace the uniqueness of each little individual. The diverse range of insights shared here by fellow parents, healthcare professionals, and therapists provides a toolkit for you to explore. Remember, there's no one-size-fits-all solution; what works wonders for one child might not for another. It's about trying different methods, observing what resonates with your child, and maintaining an open line of communication with your healthcare provider. So, whether it's positive reinforcement, creative sleep solutions, or a more holistic approach, the key is to be patient, adaptable, and understanding. Each child's journey is a personal one, and finding the right path involves a bit of trial, a bit of error, and a whole lot of love. If in doubt, your doctor is there to provide guidance and support tailored to your child's unique needs. Here's to embarking on this thumb-weaning adventure with flexibility, compassion, and the knowledge that you're doing your best for your little one.

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