Thumb sucking is a natural and absolutely harmless habit that is common in babies and toddlers up to three years of age. However, starting at the age of three, if the thumb is sucked intensely and frequently, it can lead to problems with a child’s teeth and jaw and may also cause abnormal drinking, eating, and swallowing patterns; speech disorders; and disordered breathing. Therefore, most dentists and pediatric specialists recommend that children stop thumb sucking by age three. Here is everything you need to know about your child’s thumb sucking habit and the weaning period.
What is the cause of thumb sucking?
The sucking reflex is essential for newborns, and it’s not surprising that nature has taken appropriate precautions to anchor it well. Sucking on the finger often begins in the womb. As soon as the baby is born, breast and bottle feeding triggers a pleasant feeling and sense of security.
Even if the actual sucking reflex subsides after a few months, a strong connection between sucking and experiencing pleasant feelings has already been established by that time.
Every baby is different. Some babies show no interest in pacifiers or their thumbs. Others can’t get enough of them. It’s totally normal and safe for your baby to suck on their thumb. It helps the baby to calm themselves down and to fall asleep. Research shows that thumb sucking automatically decreases between ages three and four.
The Benefits of Thumb Sucking
Thumb sucking has its benefits. In contrast to a pacifier, a thumb can’t get lost and is always available for the child. This is especially useful for little children, as it helps them to calm down and sleep through the night.
In addition, a study from New Zealand involving 1,000 children found a reduced risk of allergies in thumb sucking children. The study was published in Pediatrics in 2016.
The Negative Effects of Thumb Sucking
Starting at the age of three, if the thumb is sucked intensely and frequently, it can lead to problems with a child’s teeth and jaw. Therefore, most dentists recommend children stop sucking their thumbs by the age of three. Long-term thumb sucking causes changes to occur to the teeth and jaws, such as crooked front teeth and an open bite. Furthermore, the growth of the jaw can be hindered, and the motor skills of the tongue can be impaired by thumb sucking as well. In 40% of cases, thumb sucking is the primary cause of orthodontic treatments required in children and teenagers.
The most common side effects of thumb sucking include the following:
- Changes in the growth and development of the face, jaw, and teeth
- Abnormal eating, drinking, and swallowing patterns
- Speech disorders
- Disordered breathing
- Skin irritation (e.g., thumb sucking blister)
So, there are good reasons for children to stop sucking their thumbs. However, this is often not very easy, as some children have gotten very used to sucking their thumb, and in contrast to a pacifier, you can’t just make the thumb disappear.
What to Avoid
Forbidding thumb sucking or punishing children for sucking their thumbs doesn’t work and is often counterproductive. This will only lead to uncertainty for the children, who then often calm themselves down with even more thumb sucking. A negative dynamic arises very quickly which can put a massive strain on the parent-child relationship.
By the way, do not just pull the thumb out of your child’s mouth, either. This will likely frustrate your child and doesn’t do any good in attempting to break the habit. Typically, the thumb is right back in the child’s mouth just a few seconds later, and the child and parents are both left even more frustrated than before.
Thumb sucking is not bad, and neither is your child if they suck their thumb. However, at a certain age, thumb sucking will start to cause some problems. Therefore, it’s wise to support your child in the process of giving it up.
How to Stop Thumb Sucking
There are many ways to help your child break the habit of thumb sucking. As a parent, you should take on the role of a companion and supporter, not of a teacher and punisher. You can’t force anything; the child will set the pace. You may need a lot of patience, too, as breaking the habit can take some time.
Below, you can find an overview of various strategies to help your child stop sucking their thumb. Which strategy may be best suited for your child depends on your child and their age.
Table of Contents
- Observe the Thumb Sucking
- Books about Thumb Sucking
- Praise and Positive Reinforcement
- Reward Calendar
- Only Speaking Without Thumb Sucking and Interrupting Certain Activities
- Pictures of Children Wearing Braces and Having “Open Bite” Teeth
- Nasty-Tasting Nail Liquids
- Giving the Thumb an Identity
- Use the Placebo Effect
- Changing from Thumb Sucking to a Pacifier
- Products to Prevent Thumb Sucking
- Choose the Right Moment
- Have Confidence in Your Child
- Thumb Sucking Experts
Observe the Thumb Sucking
In the beginning, the first steps in breaking your child’s thumb sucking habit are mainly about observing the child’s thumb sucking. In which situations does the child suck their thumb? Which need is being satisfied? Sucking often happens when the child is tired or frightened. Therefore, it can help to find alternatives for these moments (e.g., providing attention, a soft toy, a blankie).
Books About Thumb Sucking
Children love stories. Thus, a story can help draw the child’s attention to their thumb sucking. It won’t be the parents wanting or forbidding something but a lovely character in a book who displays similar experiences as the child.
If the hero or heroine of a thumb sucking book uses a specific coping strategy, the child will often ask for it themselves and reenact the behaviors. You may also need to support your child a little in this process, asking questions such as, “What did the boy/girl do when he/she wanted to break the habit?”
Here you can find a review of the most popular and recommended children’s book about thumb sucking.
Praise and Positive Reinforcement
Praise and positive reinforcement can work wonders. Rather than reprimanding the child for their thumb sucking behavior, it is better to praise the child and acknowledge their progress in reducing thumb sucking when they finally suck their thumb again.
For example, you might say, “You haven’t sucked your thumb for a long time this morning. Well done.”
Whether you can achieve certain things by rewarding a little child is a controversial issue, but we think it’s always worth a try.
- Praise your child for every step in the right direction.
- A reward calendar is a nice way to do this. You can place a star on the reward calendar every day your child doesn’t suck his or her thumb.
- As soon as your child earns a predetermined number of stars, they get a reward.
- Also, make sure to maintain a positive attitude in the event of mistakes. For example, if it doesn’t work out one day, you can still praise them and give half a star for their efforts.
Only Speaking Without Thumb Sucking and Interrupting Certain Activities
You can begin to consciously “no longer understand” your child when they speak with their thumb in the mouth. Of course, you have to communicate this clearly, though (“I really can’t understand you. What do you want to tell me?”). Children want to be understood. If you use this technique consistently, it will at least result in your child taking their thumb out of their mouth when they want to communicate.
Another approach is to interrupt certain activities (e.g., reading books or watching TV) as soon as the thumb is being sucked. However, never deprive your child of love or attention when he or she sucks their thumb. You don’t want to teach your child that you only love them when they don’t suck their thumb.
Visit the Dentist
Communicate openly and honestly with your child regarding why her or she should stop sucking their thumb. A visit to the dentist can also be helpful because children react differently to cues from people other than their parents.
Pictures of Children Wearing Braces and Having "Open Bite" Teeth
Most children don’t quite know how to take people talking about misaligned teeth. Show them pictures on the internet of children wearing braces and of “open bite” teeth. Just showing these kind of pictures may cause enough motivation for some children to stop sucking their thumb.
Nasty-Tasting Nail Liquids (i.e., Thumb Sucking Nail Polish)
Bitter-tasting nail liquids can act as a thumb sucking deterrent, but some children are not put off by this because the urge to suck their thumb is much stronger than the short-term experience of a bitter taste. However, in combination with other strategies, a bitter taste can help remind the child that they are about to suck their thumb. You can find a recommended product from this on our product review page.
We do not recommend spicy/hot-tasting nail liquids and sauces. A spicy flavor is often much stronger for children than it is for adults. Furthermore, spicy sauces may reach the eyes and other mucous membranes. Understandably, this can lead to a great deal of discomfort and distress.
Giving the Thumb an Identity
Giving the thumb an identity can work wonders. This is best done in combination with a good story or book.
Some ideas for a thumb’s identity:
- The children’s book “Anna and Dedo: A Thumb Ventures Out” is about a frightened thumb who likes to hide in Anna’s mouth. Anna is a four-year-old girl. It’s a beautiful story with Anna being the heroine who helps her thumb stop hiding and being afraid. Have a look at our book review. You can find further information on www.annaunddedo.com and buy the book on Amazon.
- The thumb doesn’t like getting wet and is scared of the sharp teeth.
- The thumb prefers playing outside.
- The thumb wants to see what’s going on outside of the mouth.
- The thumb wants to play with the other fingers.
Depending on the book and story, you can then also:
- Talk and sing with the thumb, and ask what he/she would like to do today.
- Paint your child’s thumb to have a face, hair, and clothes.
- Dress the thumb (such as with a bandage that shouldn’t get wet).
- Use finger puppets (Amazon).
Don’t forget the power of young children’s imaginations. To give the thumb sucking a meaning can be a wonderful tactic for both stimulating creativity as well as tackling your child’s thumb sucking habit.
Unfortunately, we’ve only found a few testimonials regarding success with homeopathic methods so far.
Some websites recommend using globules of Ipecacuanha and Belladonna. If you are familiar with these and have any experience with using such for the breaking of a child’s thumb sucking habits, please reach out to us to provide additional information on the matter. We would love to share your experience on our site!
Unfortunately, we haven’t found any reports regarding the success of using hypnosis to improve thumb sucking habits in children yet.
Currently, there is a hypnosis audiobook on Amazon that is intended to be suitable for children from the ages of 3 to 12 years old. We can’t say anything about the effectiveness of this method, but if you are familiar with hypnosis and have experienced any success with such methods, please reach out and send us more information about your experience.
Use the Placebo Effect
The placebo effect has been well studied and works extremely well (for children and adults). It is sometimes extremely difficult for the pharmaceutical industry to develop drugs that work “better” than a placebo. The placebo effect can also be used as a thumb sucking treatment with children. As an example, you can give your child things such as “thumb drops”, “thumb tea”, “thumb syrup”, “thumb milk”, or any other thumb sucking “medicine” you can think of. Of course, the effect unfolds best when there’s a story around it:
- Tell your child about the new drops that will help them give up thumb sucking.
- Buy the drops together with your child at the pharmacy.
- Open the package of drops and read the instructions together.
Our favorite recipe for a great “thumb milk” is combining almond milk with cinnamon.
The thumb sucking medicine (like the “thumb milk”) should be something special, which the thumb sucking child gets only during special supportive moments. Of course, the thumb milk may consist of completely different ingredients than our recommendations based on what your child prefers, too. What’s important is that it should be yummy and have a different taste in comparison to other drinks that the child encounters in daily life.
Changing from Thumb Sucking to a Pacifier
Whether switching to a pacifier is worthwhile depends on the age of the child:
- An early switch (the child is younger than 6 months) to a pacifier can be worthwhile, as it is much easier to give up a pacifier than the thumb. Some might even argue that the use of a pacifier can be considered a method of thumb sucking prevention. However, there are many children who simply don’t like pacifiers. Furthermore, a pacifier has other disadvantages.
- A late switch to a pacifier isn’t very worthwhile. Because of their shape and symmetry, pacifiers are less harmful than thumb sucking, but pacifiers also need to be given up around three years of age. Additionally, it can also lead to the child simply switching back to their thumb after giving up the pacifier.
Products to Prevent Thumb Sucking
There are some products that are more or less effective at preventing thumb sucking. You can find a detailed description of the methods, procedures, and the best products available on our product review page.
Special thumb sucking gloves can be used to deter thumb sucking if the child wants to stop on their own. The glove is more of a reminder to prevent unconscious sucking. Otherwise, a child with no interest in stopping will simply pull the glove off.
There are special gloves to deter thumb sucking available (product review), or you can simply redesign an old child’s glove and make your own thumb guard.
Stitch Up Pajama Sleeves
Stitching up the sleeve of your child’s pajamas can help some children if they only suck their thumbs at night. However, while this may work for some children, it may lead to big frustration for others.
Socks Over the Hands
Placing socks over a very young child’s hands can help some of these children avoid thumb sucking if they only suck their thumbs at night.
Anti-Thumb Sucking Devices (Thumb Sucking Guards)
There are also some products available, typically referred to as “thumb sucking guards,” that are worn over the thumb. Some of these thumb sucking appliances are designed in such a way that the child can’t pull them off themselves. These products have a great success rate of over 90% and work in a short period of time (3-4 weeks). For some children, it may be harder to fall asleep during the first nights of wearing an anti-thumb sucking device.
Everything you will need to consider with this method, the products we recommend, and more information about the best thumb sucking guard for your child can be found on our product review page.
Anti-Thumb Sucking Device on the Arm
Another approach is to block the child’s elbow so that they can still move their arm but the thumb can’t reach the mouth. You can find a detailed description on such items and how they work on the product review page.
Choose the Right Moment and Be Prepared
If possible, the weaning process should start in an atmosphere of calm and safety. It’s not the right time to try to break a thumb sucking habit when big changes are about to come up (i.e., relocation, starting kindergarten, the birth of a sibling, etc.). Big life events coupled with trying to prevent the coping mechanism of thumb sucking can be overwhelming for a child.
Furthermore, if you make a plan and timeline beforehand and are very well prepared, this preparation will often eliminate most of the stress and fear of trying to help your child overcome their habit.
Ask Your Child for Advice
From a certain age on, the child can also be actively involved in the process of breaking the thumb sucking habit. You can ask your child questions, such as “What do you need right now? How can we help you?”
If you have already given their thumb an identity, you may ask the thumb directly, too.
Have Confidence in Your Child
Have faith in your child. They can and will, like so many other developmental milestones, master this one as well. Your confidence fills your child with confidence.
Don't Be Discouraged by Setbacks
Sometimes, there are two steps forward and one step back. Upcoming changes (the start of kindergarten, a new sibling, relocation, a cold, etc.) may lead to the child sucking their thumb more often and backtracking in their progress. This is perfectly normal and just part of the weaning process. Don’t be discouraged by it.
Thumb Sucking Experts
If all else fails, don’t hesitate to contact a thumb sucking professional. There are several experts (dental hygienists, orofacial myologists, orthodontists, oral health therapists, etc.) who are educated on the subject of thumb sucking. They have profound knowledge of thumb sucking habits, causes, and answers to questions like “what are the side effects of thumb sucking?” A thumb sucking expert looks at every child individually, as no child is the same and neither are their habits.
A thumb sucking professional offers a fun and rewarding program with customized strategies and personalized support.
- thumbsuckingclinic.com.au offers their program in their clinic in North Queensland, Australia. In addition to this, they are very active on social media (Instagram, Youtube, Facebook) with lots of help for parents. Furthermore, they provide an evidence-based online course that gives clinicians all around the world the exact tools and skills needed to treat patients in their own practice. Have a look at their website for other trained specialists in Australia, the US, and Iceland.
- thumbsaway.com.au offers its program in Mount Eliza, Victoria, Australia.
- thethumbsuckingcoach offers in-person consults on the Sunshine Coast, Australia, and online.
Are you a thumb sucking coach yourself or know of other thumb sucking experts? Please contact us—we’d love to share your program or website on Thumb-Heroes.
It’s incredibly worthwhile to support your child when they are three years of age or older when it comes to breaking the habit of thumb sucking. It can spare your child a lot of negative side effects and visits to the dentist as they get older. Just make sure to proceed cautiously and without pressure.
Important: Stay calm and be confident. If you’re not going into this process with confidence, it’s not going to go as well as you want it to go because your child is going to feel the lack of confidence from you. Set yourselves up to win!
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Thumb Sucking in Adults
Thumb sucking in adults is not very common, but there are more people affected by this than you might think.
In our culture, thumb sucking is often viewed as embarrassing and “bad,” and this can lead to bullying. Therefore, most children start to hide their thumb sucking habit at some point, sometimes even from their own parents. This is not a good thing, though, as these kids will not get the necessary help and support they need if no one around them is aware of it. Due to that scenario, in some cases, thumb sucking can continue into adulthood.
We believe that no one—no child and no adult—should be ashamed of themselves. If you are an adult and still suck your thumb, don’t be too hard on yourself. You are definitely not alone. If you desire to quit the habit, we recommend that you do contact a thumb sucking expert for assistance. They know what can be done to support you in your journey, and they are also fully aware that this issue can affect people of all ages and will not judge you in any way.
Side Note: Thumb Sucking vs. Finger Sucking
Some children prefer to suck on one or two fingers. The dentists’ concerns are the same for finger sucking as they are with thumb sucking. There are even some finger sucking techniques that are more harmful than thumb sucking itself. The procedures for breaking the habit of finger sucking are identical to the ones for thumb sucking, though. To make the text of this website as easy to read as possible, we always use the term “thumb sucking.”