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Thumb Sucking: 6 Effective Ways to Break the Habit

Updated: Mar 1

Are you the parent of a thumb sucking child? If so, you’re not alone. Many young children develop this habit and many parents struggle to help them stop when the time comes. However, by understanding why your child has the urge to suck, using a patient and positive approach, and providing helpful alternatives, there are ways to stop this habit once and for all.

In this article we'll discuss strategies that will help your little one transition from thumb sucking in a positive way (for everyone!).

In this article:

The upsides of thumb sucking

It's common for infants and toddlers to suck their thumbs (and sometimes other fingers). There are several important reasons for—and beneficial effects of—this habit:

1. Your baby's development

Sucking is a natural reflex that babies are born with. They need this reflex to eat! However, sucking their thumb is an important part of your baby's development in several ways.

1. Thumb or finger sucking shows your child's growing interest in exploring their surroundings and their own body. As they develop, your baby will use all of their senses to learn, including taste.

2. Thumb sucking also helps your baby develop fine motor skills. At first, a newborn baby does not have control over their hands and fingers. During the first few months, they will develop the ability to deliberately bring their own hand to their mouth, and will eventually be able to single out one digit.

2. Comfort and self-soothing

Thumb sucking can be an important source of comfort and self-soothing for babies and young children, especially in stressful situations such as being away from their parents or caregivers. Young children might also self soothe in this way when they are tired or bored.

Sucking stimulates a child's brain to release the hormone oxytocin, the "feel-good hormone." Oxytocin can have a calming effect on babies and help to reduce stress.

Thumb sucking also works to regulate a child's breathing and heart rate, which helps them feel more relaxed.

To learn more about how sucking helps children self-soothe, see Pacifier Pros and Cons.

3. Allergy reduction

Some research has found that children who suck their thumbs have a lower risk of environmental allergies later in life.

The theory behind this is that thumb suckers are generally exposed to more microbes at an earlier age because they are constantly putting their hands in their mouths. This early exposure helps to train their immune systems and makes them less likely to have allergic reactions to these microbes later.


When thumb sucking starts

Because babies have a natural sucking reflex, they are capable of sucking their thumbs from birth. In fact, 90% of newborns show some degree of hand or finger sucking in their first 2 hours of life.

Some babies will even suck their fingers or thumbs when they are still in the womb!

However, newborn babies do not have the coordination to deliberately put their thumb or fingers into their mouths. So if you see your newborn sucking their thumb, they are most likely just taking advantage of a lucky accident!

It's unusual for a baby to start sucking their thumb after 6 or 7 months old—this habit starts early!

Many children quit independently

Some children stop sucking independently as they get older and learn other ways to soothe themselves. For example, a child might become attached to a blanket or stuffed animal and rely less on thumb sucking for comfort.

Children who continue to suck their thumbs past their 1st birthday usually stop on their own between ages 2 and 4 years. This also corresponds with the beginning of preschool, when they might face peer pressure to quit.

Just keep in mind that a child might go back to thumb sucking during times of stress, such as moving to a new house or welcoming a new sibling.

When to encourage your child to stop thumb sucking

Thumb sucking is common and not usually a cause for concern in babies or toddlers.

However, it can be problematic if it continues past the age of 4 to 5 years.

Negative effects of thumb sucking

Although thumb sucking is usually harmless in young children, some of the potential negative effects that can occur as a result of prolonged thumb sucking include:

1. Dental problems

Prolonged thumb sucking can cause dental issues, from problems with how your child's teeth line up to changes in the soft tissue on the roof of their mouth.

There generally isn't a reason to worry about the effects of thumb sucking on your child's teeth until their permanent teeth come in. At that point, thumb sucking can begin to impact the alignment of their teeth and could cause an overbite (when the top front teeth protrude beyond the bottom front teeth) or open bite (where the front upper and lower teeth do not come together).

Proper growth of your child's permanent teeth is essential to their ability to eat and speak correctly. If your child's teeth are not growing in properly, they might require orthodontic treatment when they get older.

The likelihood and severity of any impact on your child's dental health will depend on how long, how frequently, and how hard your child sucks their thumb.

2. Speech delays

The changes to a child's mouth that can result from prolonged thumb sucking can also impact their speech development.

Thumb sucking can cause changes in a child's tongue, such as an abnormal tongue resting position, tongue thrust, and decreased tongue strength.

Along with an open bite, discussed above, these can make it harder for a child to make certain sounds when learning to speak. For example, a child might lisp or otherwise have trouble being understood by others.

3. Skin irritation

Frequent thumb sucking can cause the skin on your child's thumb to become irritated, cracked, and painful and can lead to infection.

In extreme cases, thumb sucking can even cause permanent damage to the thumbnail.

4. Social issues

Children who suck their thumbs past a certain age can face teasing from their classmates. This can lead to social problems and cause anxiety or shame, which may affect their confidence.

How to stop thumb sucking

It can be challenging to break any habit, especially one that provides comfort. To help your child quit sucking their thumb, it's essential that you stay patient and positive. If you put too much pressure on them, you could create a power struggle that will only delay the process.

The following tips may be helpful as you help your child stop sucking.

Tips for helping your thumb sucker quit the habit

1. Explain to your child why it's important for them to stop thumb sucking.

  • Germs: Thumb and finger sucking spreads germs, leading to illness.

  • Teeth: Thumb sucking could cause an overbite (when the top front teeth protrude beyond the bottom front teeth) or open bite (where the front upper and lower teeth do not come together).

  • Speech: It can make it harder for a child to make certain sounds when learning to speak

  • Teasing: Children can face teasing from their classmates.

2. Redirect your child's urge to suck toward other activities, such as playing with toys. Keep those little hands busy and away from their mouth!

3. Encourage other coping skills and sources of comfort such as cuddling with a favorite blanket or stuffed toy.

4. Relatedly, offer other comforting activities to help your child fall asleep. You might read an extra bedtime story or provide extra snuggles to help your child relax.

5. Always provide positive reinforcement. Give your child praise and encouragement when they choose a different coping skill and use gentle reminders if your child sucks their thumb. Never shame or scold them for their thumb sucking habit.

6. Depending on your child's personality, you might consider using a sticker chart or reward system when they refrain from sucking their thumb.

Resources for help

If you are having trouble helping your child to stop sucking their thumb, you should consult with your pediatrician or pediatric dentist. They can check for any underlying issues that might be causing your child to suck and provide advice on breaking the thumb sucking habit.

Thumb sucking FAQs

Q: Can I put something on my child's thumb to discourage sucking?

Occasionally, a doctor might recommend putting a bitter substance (like a bad tasting nail polish), a bandage, or a thumb guard on your child's thumb to discourage them from putting it in their mouth.

However, most medical professionals agree that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative in breaking a habit.

Q: My child sucks their finger, not their thumb—is this normal?

Absolutely! Your child will become accustomed to sucking whichever part of their hand they consistently get into their mouth first.

The Takeaway

Thumb sucking can provide comfort and security for young children, but they should stop by the time they are five years old to avoid dental problems and potential speech delays or social problems.

Support your child in breaking the habit by using positive reinforcement and being patient and understanding with your little one as they work towards success, even if it may take a bit of time and trial-and-error.

With guidance, love, and gentle support, you can help your child stop sucking their thumb!


  1. The Journal of the American Dental Association, Thumb sucking and pacifier use. Vol. 138, Issue 8, P1176, August 2007.

  2. Lynch SJ, Sears MR, Hancox RJ. Thumb-Sucking, Nail-Biting, and Atopic Sensitization, Asthma, and Hay Fever. Pediatrics. 2016 Aug;138(2):e20160443. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-0443. Epub 2016 Jul 11.


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