Thumb-sucking is a natural and absolutely harmless habit for babies and toddlers up to three years of age. However, starting at the age of three, if the thumb is sucked intensively and frequently, it can lead to problems with teeth and jaw, abnormal drinking, eating and swallowing patterns, speech disorders and disordered breathing. Therefore, most dentists and pediatric specialists recommend children stop sucking their thumbs by age three. Everything you need to know about your child’s thumb-sucking and the weaning period.
What To Know About 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 child is born, breast and bottle feeding triggers a pleasant feeling and security.
Even if the actual sucking reflex subsides after a few months, a strong connection between sucking and pleasant feelings has already been established by then.
Every child is different. Some show no interest in pacifiers and their thumb. Others can’t get enough of it. It’s totally normal and safe for your child to suck on their thumb. It helps a child to calm themselves down and to fall asleep. Research shows that thumb-sucking automatically decreases by age three and four.
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 with 1000 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
However, starting at the age of three, if the thumb is sucked intensively and frequently, it can lead to problems with teeth and jaw. Therefore, most dentist recommend children stop sucking their thumbs by age three. Long-lasting thumb-sucking leaves clear marks on 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 impaired. In 40% of the cases thumb-sucking is the cause of orthodontic treatments in children and teenagers.
So there are good reasons for children to stop sucking their thumbs. However, this is often not that easy, as some children have gotten very used to sucking their thumb and, in contrast to a pacifier, you can’t just let the thumb disappear.
What to Avoid
Forbidding thumb-sucking or punishing children doesn’t work and is often counterproductive. It only leads to uncertainty for the children, who then often calm themselves down with more thumb-sucking. A negative dynamic arises very quickly which can but a massive strain on the parent-child relationship
By the way, do not just pull the thumb out of your child’s mouth. This may frustrate the child and doesn’t do any good either. Typically, the thumb is back in the mouth just a few seconds later and the child and parents are more frustrated than before.
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 and not of a teacher and punisher. You can’t force anything, the child will set the pace. You may need a lot of patience as breaking the habit takes some time.
Below you can find an overview of possible strategies to help your child stop sucking their thumb. Which strategie suits best 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 of “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 from Thumb-Sucking
- Choose the Right Moment
- Have Confidence in Your Child
- Thumb-Sucking Experts
Observe the Thumb-Sucking
In the beginning it’s 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 (attention, soft toy, 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 makes similar experiences as the child.
If the hero or heroine of the book uses a specific coping strategy, the child will often ask for it themselves and reenact. It may be that you have to support your child a little: “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 may work wonders. In order to avoid reminding the child of the thumb-sucking, it is better to praise the child when they suck their thumb again. For example: You haven’t sucked your thumb for a long time this morning. Well done.
Whether you can achieve something with a reward for 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 receives a pretermined number of stars, they get a reward.
- But 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 give half a star for effort.
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 (“I really don’t understand you, what to 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. But never deprive your child of love or attention when he or she sucks the thumb. You don’t want to teach your child that you only love them when they don’t suck their thumb.
Visit the Dentist
Communictae 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 "Open Bite" Teeth
Most children don’t know quite 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 already cause enough motivation for some children to stop sucking their thumb.
Nasty Tasting Nail Liquids (bitter)
Bitter tasting nail liquids can help. But some children are not put off by it because the urge to suck the thumb is bigger than the short-term bitter taste. However, in combination with other strategies the bitter taste can help remind the child that they are about to suck their thumb. You can find a recommended product in our product review.
We don’t recommend spicy/hot tasting nail liquids and sauces. A spicy flavour is often much stronger for children than for adults. Furthermore, spicy sauces may reach the eyes and other mucous membranes. Understandably, this can lead to a great deal of frustration.
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. Have a look at our book review. You can find further details 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 with face, hair and clothes.
- Dress the thumb (with a band-aid that shouldn’t get wet)
- Use finger puppets (Amazon)
Don’t forget the power of young children’s imagination. It can work wonders.
Unfortunately, we haven’t found any reports on this yet, There is an audio hypnosis on Amazon, suitable for children from 3 to 12 years. We can’t say anything about the effectiveness. If your are familiar with it and have gained experience, please send us more information.
Use the Placebo Effect
The placebo effect has been well studied and works extremely well (not just for children). It is sometimes extremely difficult for the pharmaceutical industry to develop drugs that work “better” than a placebo. The effect can also be used with children. For example with thumb drops, thumb tea, thumb syrup, thumb milk, etc. Of course, the effect unfolds best when there’s a story around it:
- Tell your child about new drops that will help them giving up thumb-sucking.
- Buy the drops together with your child at the pharmacy.
- Unpack the drops and read the instructions together.
Our recipe for a thumb milk: Almond milk with cinnamon
The thumb milk should be something special, which only the thumb-sucking child gets for special supportive moments. Of course, the thumb milk can consist of completely different ingredients. What’s important: It should be yummy and have a different taste to other drinks that the child encounters in the daily life.
Changing from Thumb-Sucking to a Pacifier
Whether switching to a pacifier is worthwile depends on the age of the child:
- An early change (child is younger than 6 months) can be worthwile, as it is much easier to give up a pacifier than the thumb. But there are many children who simply don’t like pacifiers. Furthermore, a pacifier has other disadvantages.
- A late switch to a pacifier isn’t worthwile. 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. On the other hand, it can lead to the child simply switching back to the thumb after giving up the pacifier.
Products to Prevent from Thumb-Sucking
There are some products that are more or less effective at preventing thumb-sucking. A detailed description of the methods, the procedure and the best products can be found in our product review.
Gloves against thumb-sucking can work if the child wants to stop on their own and the glove is more of a reminder to prevent unconscious sucking. Otherwise, the child will simply pull the glove off. There are special gloves against thumb-sucking (product review) or you can redesign an old child’s glove for this purpose.
Stitch Up Pyjama's Sleeves
Stitching up the sleeve of the pyjama 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
This method can help some very young children if they only suck their thumbs at night.
There are some products that are worn over the thumb. Some of these products 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 have to consider with this method and which products are recommended can be found in our product review.
Anti-Thumb-Sucking Device on the Arm
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 when big changes are about to come up (relocation, start of kindergarten, birth of a sibling, …). The child could be overwhelmed.
Furthermore, if you made a plan and timeline beforehand and are very well prepared this will eliminate the stress and fear.
Ask Your Child for Advice
From a certain age on, the child can also be actively involved in the process. You may ask: “What do you need right now? How can we help you?” If you already given the thumb an identity you may ask the thumb directly.
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( start of kindergarten, a new sibling, relocation, a cold, …) may lead to the child sucking their thumb more often. This is normal and part of the weaning process. Don’t be discouraged by it.
Don’t hesitate to contact a thumb-sucking professional. There are several experts (dental hygienists, orofacial myologists, orthodontists, oral health therapists) who are educated on the subject of thumb-sucking. A thumb-sucking expert looks at every child indivually as no child is the same and so isn’t their habit. A thumb-sucking professional offers a fun and rewarding program with customised strategies and personalised support.
- thumbsuckingclinic.com.au offer 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, USA and Iceland.
- thumbsaway.com.au offer their 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 write us, we’d love to share it on thumb-heroes.
It’s worthwile to support your child when he or she is three years old or over in breaking the habit of thumb-sucking. It may spare your child a lot of negative side effects and visits to the dentist. 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!
Self-Help Book Review
Do you need help?
Do you have a specific question about Thumb-Sucking and how to handle it best together with your child? Book a one-on-one session with us now.
Help us to keep this website alive and improve it contionuously. We spent and are still spending countless hours of work for this project that we take closely to our heart. We want to help parents and their children learn how to break the habit of thumb-sucking. You can support us in different ways:
- By sharing your own experiences and success stories with us: Contact
- Use our affiliate links when buying products from our product review. We will receive a small commission.
- If you have your own website or blog, please share the link of our website so parents can find out about our offer and benefit from it.
- Of course we are also very thankful about a small donation:
Side Note: Thumb-Sucking vs Finger-Sucking
Some children prefer to suck on one or two fingers. The dentists’ concerns are the same as with thumb-sucking. There are even some finger-sucking techniques that are more harmful than thumb-sucking. The procedure to break the habit is identical to the one for thumb-sucking. To make the text of this website as easy to read as possible, we always use the term “thumb-sucking”.