Oh, those wrinkly, stinky little thumbs!

Kids find it comforting to suck on the soggy digits while grown-ups fear all sorts of long-term problems from the habit. Read on to learn more about why your child sucks a thumb, whether you need to intervene, and some parent-tested tips for getting your child to quit.

Tips to get your kid to quit

If you aren’t comfortable ignoring your child’s thumb-sucking, or your child is nearing 4 years old and you want to wrap up this phase, here are some suggestions to help end the habit.

1. Distractions

The easiest, and also the hardest, thing to do is to provide your child with plenty of distractions from sucking a thumb.

Keeping those little hands busy is often the simplest way to distract your child long enough to help them break the habit of putting one of those hands in the mouth. The harder part is finding enough activities, and offering them constantly enough, to make it out of the thumb-sucking stage. Hands On As We Grow has 50 good suggestions, Teaching Mama has 20 more ideas here, and these ideas from Simple Little Home are low-cost and have low environmental impact.

2. Time limits

Limit time spent on thumb-sucking to just a short while here and there throughout the day. If your child is more interested in sucking on a blanket or toy, hand over the item for short amounts of time. Essentially, you are weaning your child from opportunities to engage in the habit.

3. Bandages

Some parents find success wrapping a thumb in a bandage to make it less appealing. Those cool bandages with superheroes or cartoon characters are a great motivation for your child to go with this tactic.

4. Praise and reward

Praise, reward, repeat. The same techniques many parents use to potty train, or build a positive habit, will work to break a habit.

If you catch your child not sucking their thumb for a period of time, praise that achievement, offer a small reward, or put a sticker on a sticker chart. Keep doing that until the thumb isn’t interesting any longer.

5. Avoid topical treatments

Avoid topical treatments like cinnamon spray or the bitter oil that parents put on a thumb to make it taste bad. They can be hazardous and they can also feel like punishment to a child.

6. Communicate

Talk to your child about sucking the thumb and why it would be a good idea to stop. And then talk about it again. Even small children can understand that some habits aren’t good, but they may need to be reminded.

7. Allow when necessary

Never try to stop your child from sucking a thumb at a stressful moment. Thumb-sucking is soothing, so taking it away at a difficult moment for your child could be much more upsetting than you realize.

8. Note stress triggers

On that note, try to realize what your child’s stress triggers are and avoid them, if you are able. Reducing stressful experiences, even for a little bit, can help.

9. Secret signals

Set up a secret signal for stopping. Talk to your child about a cool signal you can give when you spot your little one sucking their thumb. The signal will be a reminder to stop that only the two of you will notice, which avoids embarrassment in public.

Most likely, your child will also love having a special secret just between the two of you.

Why do kids suck their thumb?

Researchers think thumb-sucking probably starts by instinct. Babies suck to nurse or drink from a bottle so when they find a thumb that offers similar comfort and is available all the time, some develop a habit.

Doctors, nurses, psychologists, dentists, teachers, and others have expressed concern over thumb-sucking for more than 100 years in the United States. For the most part, however, researchers today think thumb-sucking is a natural early childhood behavior that is not typically a cause for concern.

When should kids stop?

Many children will have only a brief fling with sucking their thumb, while others might do it for a few years. Most children who suck their thumb will stop on their own between 2 and 4 years of age. In fact, many pediatricians suggest simply ignoring the behavior before your child is preschool-aged, or about 4 years old. Possibly after the age of 4, and definitely after the age of 5, it’s time to intervene.

Is thumb-sucking harmful?

If your child is intensely sucking a thumb, enough to develop a blister, or continues to suck at age 5, there could be cause for concern. Dentists and orthodontists say both aggressive and late thumb-sucking can create problems with tooth alignment and speech issues like lisping. Again, this isn’t typically an issue for younger children, but it’s a concern for those approaching school age.

Another concern can be hygiene, especially with busy little hands that rarely stop to wash without an adult’s prompting. If you know your child is actively sucking their thumb, try to practice good hygiene, but limit the use of antibacterial products that don’t require washing. You don’t want bacteria, or the chemicals in antibacterial products, to make their way into your child’s mouth.

Some parents express concern that thumb-sucking will cause social problems and interfere with a child’s success at school. There’s evidence to suggest that, among children who are school-aged, thumb-sucking is not well-received.

One study of first-graders indicated that other children avoid those who suck their thumb when it comes to playtime or as work partners. Again, this is among children at school age and not with toddlers, for whom it’s more natural. And, it appears that children who are able to stop sucking their thumb are quickly brought into the social circle.

Along those lines, many people will comment on a child sucking a thumb, from grocery store clerks, to grandparents, to friendly neighbors. For some children, this constant surveillance can lead to feelings of insecurity and anxiety — which are very good reasons to help your child change behavior.

The takeaway

If your child is sucking a thumb and you want to make sure it’s not doing any damage to their teeth or speech skills, don’t hesitate to ask your dentist, even if they are younger than 4 years old.

Otherwise, be patient and the phase will likely pass before there are any real reasons to be concerned. If you just can’t stand the habit, be sure to avoid shaming or punishing your child and focus on positive reinforcement for a long-term resolution.