toddler sucking thumb
Learn how to stop your toddler from sucking their thumb and what to do when they won't quit the habit

Thumb sucking is what babies do to self-soothe. While this coping mechanism helps young children to reduce their anxiety, you likely want them to stop this habit by the time they reach preschool or kindergarten, so they can avoid potential problems for their growing mouths. 

The trick is to handle the process correctly and help your child gradually reduce the urge to put their fingers in their mouths.

6 tips to stop your toddler from sucking their thumb

  1. Explain why they should stop. Do not scold, ridicule, or criticize your child. Gently explain to them why they should stop thumb sucking, especially in public. You could tell them that this is a bedtime activity they can do before a nap or at night.
  2. Use positive reinforcement. Set easy-to-reach goals, such as no thumb sucking one hour before bedtime. Offer rewards, such as a trip to the park, when your kid manages to reach those goals.
  3. Teach other coping skills. Your toddler may start thumb sucking when they are stressed. Bring attention to the fact that they are thumb sucking, hug them and soothe them with reassuring words, and give them a stuffed animal to squeeze to relieve their stress instead. 
  4. Get creative. Ask them whether their favorite cartoon character sucks their thumb. They may start thinking about it and eventually want to give up the habit.
  5. Try using a finger guard. Finger guards, such as mittens and gloves, can physically prevent your toddler from sucking their thumb. These are safe, chemical-free, and difficult for your child to remove on their own.
  6. Use visual cues. You can use visual cues if your child is ready to stop sucking their thumb but forgets to do so. Help them by offering visual cues. You can tie a waistband or use a temporary tattoo on their hand so that it reminds them to stop the habit before they start.

What if your kid still won’t quit thumb sucking?

If these tips fail to help your toddler get rid of their thumb sucking habit, you can try the following steps:

  • Apply edible bad-tasting nail polish. While some experts don’t recommend this approach because they think it is cruel, it is often one of the only ways to deter aggressive thumb-sucking. This strategy also acts as a reminder for toddlers who may want to stop thumb sucking but easily forget.
  • Enlist the help of a dentist. When your words do not help, a dentist (especially a pediatric dentist) can talk with your child and make them realize why it is necessary to kick the habit. They can also tell you if the habit is affecting your child’s teeth and oral development. A pediatric dentist may recommend: 
    • Palatal bar: A device is inserted into the child's mouth to prevent thumb sucking. Also known as “palatal crib,” it is available in both a fixed and removable version.
    • Flexible brace: A brace is tied to the child’s elbow and prevents flexion when they attempt thumb sucking. The only drawback is that it limits the child’s movements.  

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Medically Reviewed on 6/23/2021
References
Mayo Clinic. Thumb sucking: Help your child break the habit. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/thumb-sucking/art-20047038

Breaking the Thumb-Sucking Habit. https://www.webmd.com/baby/features/breaking-thumb-sucking-habit#1