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Quit Thumb Sucking Habit

Most children who suck their thumbs (or fingers) as infants stop on their own by the time they turn 5 years old. Generally, thumb-sucking’s impact on mouth growth and tooth alignment, or a child’s bite, arises only if the habit continues after permanent teeth have begun to come in.

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Thumbsucking: Adorable or Dangerous

If your child’s fifth birthday is approaching (or has passed) and he or she continues thumb-sucking, consider these strategies:

  • Ask your child for ideas about how he or she can learn to stop thumb-sucking. If your child is not ready, let them know that you’ll be there to help when the time is right.
  • “Catch” your child when not sucking, and offer praise. Conversely, if your child seems at times to be unaware of sucking, gently point it out to promote self-awareness of the habit, but be careful with scolding.
  • If your child’s anxiety in particular situations fosters sucking, offer alternatives, such as a stuffed animal or blanket to snuggle with instead of sucking. Be careful that such alternatives do not backfire and trigger thumb sucking.
  • Set goals with your child to reduce the amount of time he or she sucks their thumb little by little, such as only at nap time but not while awake. Once your child has met the goal, move on to a more lofty goal of quitting all together.
  • Use rewards such as sticker charts, prizes, and praise.

Two products are marketed for breaking the thumb-sucking habit, but some doctors and psychologists have suggested that they may cause more harm than good:

  • Nasty-tasting liquids. Sold over-the-counter just for this purpose, these bitter or sour preparations are applied to the favored thumb or finger. This method works in some children, but not all.
  • Plastic thumb guard. Used mostly at night and held in place with a wristband your child can’t remove, the thumb guard can be quite effective, although can create anxiety in the child.