What Can I Do to Encourage My Child to Stop Thumb Sucking?

how to encourage child to stop thumb sucking
Thumb sucking is a common habit, but one that can cause dental and speech issues later on

Thumb sucking is a common habit among young children. Babies have a natural sucking reflex, and they may feel the need to suck on whatever object they can put in their mouth. Since thumb sucking is a self-soothing action, babies may develop a habit of sucking their thumb when they’re hungry, sleepy, scared, or bored.

But while it may have been cute when they were an infant, as your child gets older and becomes a preschooler, you will want to help them break this habit. Learn why (and how) you can encourage your child to stop thumb sucking.

Why encourage your child to stop thumb sucking?

In general, thumb sucking doesn’t create problems in children under age 4. Beyond that age, however, continued thumb sucking can cause dental, speech, and other health issues:

  • Improper teeth alignment, causing difficulty:
    • Closing the jaw (malocclusion) which may interfere with biting and chewing
    • Changes in the shape of the jaw or the roof of the mouth
    • Sensitivity of the roof of the mouth
  • Abnormal gaps in the front teeth, causing aesthetic concerns
  • Speech problems including:
    • Lisping
    • Thrusting out the tongue while talking
    • Inability to pronounce hard consonants
  • Calluses on the thumb (if the thumb sucking is vigorous or intense

The earlier you can help your child break this habit, the easier it is to prevent or manage these issues.

How to help your child stop thumb sucking

Most children give up thumb sucking eventually, but you can speed up the process with a few simple tactics:

  • Explain to your child why giving up thumb sucking is important. Discuss it with them when they are relaxed and in the mood to listen. Motivate them by saying that they have a beautiful smile that will be spoiled if they continue thumb sucking. Explain to them that their hands carry so many germs that can enter their mouth. You may even use a mirror to show them what harm thumb sucking can do to their mouth. 
  • Don’t yell or get frustrated if they don’t listen. Yelling at your child may further make them stressed, which only worsens the situation. If your child is 4 or 5, they will likely be able to understand you if you reason with them patiently and gently. 
  • Keep them active. Children may forget and engage in their thumb sucking habit when they’re bored. Try engaging them in activities such as crafts, board games, coloring, or puzzles. Since some children suck their thumbs while watching TV, limit screen time and get them to play outside instead.
  • Physically discourage them from sucking. Try bandaging their thumb or dipping their thumb in a yucky-tasting liquid like diluted vinegar.
  • Give them an alternative. Offer them an alternative source of comfort such as a soft toy or a comforter. This may be especially helpful for them when they go to bed, since children often suck their thumbs before falling asleep. 
  • Use positive reinforcement. Praise your child when they go without thumb sucking for a day or during a situation when they would normally have indulged in the habit. Set small goals for them, and if they successfully achieve the goal, reward them with a trip to the park, their favorite meal, stickers, a small toy, or a book.
  • Avoid triggers. Since children may suck their thumb because of lack of sleep, hunger, or stress, avoid putting your child in such situations. Make sure you keep an eye on them to make sure they are eating well and getting enough rest. 

Helping your child break a habit requires lots of patience, affection, and encouragement. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t succeed overnight, and don’t be too strict with them. 

If, despite all valiant efforts, your child still does not seem to want to stop thumb sucking or they develop speech or dental issues, contact your pediatrician.


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