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From the moment they first discover their fingers and toes (consciously or not), many babies have a fascination with sucking their thumbs. You may even have left an ultrasound appointment during pregnancy with a grainy photo of your little one happily self-soothing in the womb.

Sure, it was cute back then — but now your child is 3 or 4, and getting them to stop sucking their thumb seems about as easy as convincing them that the blue cup is just as good as the red one. In other words, it’s never gonna happen.

Meanwhile, well-meaning friends, family members, and even strangers at the grocery store are warning you that letting your child suck their thumb for too long can lead to a bunch of oral and dental problems. Great.

Relax, mom or dad. Your kid’s not gonna go off to college sucking their thumb. But it’s true that it may be a good idea to help your little one kick the habit at a certain point. And if you’ve decided now’s the time, here’s how to stop it — plus everything else you need to know about thumb sucking.

Although most kids stop thumb sucking on their own before they enter kindergarten, you know your child best — and if you feel they need a little extra intervention, there are plenty of strategies and products that may help.

These strategies work best for older children who want to stop.

Open up a dialogue

Some kids just don’t realize that sucking their thumb is a habit they should outgrow. Ask your child — in a curious rather than condemning way, of course — why they suck their thumb. Does it feel good? Do they even know they’re doing it? Is there something else they can do (like hugging a lovey or counting slowly to three) that will make them feel just as good?

Learn about thumb sucking together

If your child gets most of their life advice from Daniel Tiger (or Peppa Pig, or Paw Patrol), you might want to tap that resource. Watch a TV show where a character has to break a habit, and then talk with your child about doing the same.

You can also read a book, like Thumbs Up, Brown Bear or I Can Do It — I Don’t Need My Thumb.

Apply bitter nail polish

Also a strategy used for aggressive nail biters, bad-tasting polish applied to the fingers can deter a thumb sucker.

But some experts don’t recommend this approach since it’s not the nicest way to break your child’s habit. But for kids who are motivated to stop and just need a quick reminder not to suck, one taste of this stuff can keep them on track. It’s also discreet and doesn’t interfere with movement.

Observe thumb-sucking patterns

If you notice your child only sucks their thumb before bedtime, they may just need another way to wind down and prepare for sleep. You may want to try offering a warm cup of milk or a toddler-safe herbal tea before nighttime teeth brushing.

If you notice they pop their thumb in their mouth every time they’re anxious, angry, or sad, help them look for another coping mechanism — like a mindfulness activity — to replace the thumb sucking.

Offer rewards and incentives

Reward systems can be tricky: They don’t work for all kids and, when they do, it can be hard to phase them out. Still, some kids are highly motivated by a visual representation of their progress (like stickers or small tokens), and the opportunity to earn prizes or privileges for every day they go without sucking their thumb.

Keep in mind that children — like all of us, really — can be pretty good at hiding a behavior they don’t want to give up.

Related: Creating a behavior chart

Use a finger guard

There are many kits available online designed to physically prevent your child from sucking their thumb. Some are plastic, while others are more like flexible gloves.

On the plus side, these are chemical-free and mostly childproof so your child can’t remove them. The downsides are that they’re very noticeable and can make it hard for your child to use their hand for playing or feeding themselves.

Establish rules or boundaries

Telling your child they can suck their thumb only when they’re in bed or while watching TV is a good way to phase out the habit without turning it into a power struggle. Your child still gets to do it, but will hopefully need it less and less over time.

Try role playing

If your child has a favorite stuffed animal or toy, use it to your advantage! Pretend that Teddy wants to stop sucking his thumb. Ask your child if they can help Teddy by setting a good example and offering suggestions.

Use visual reminders

A child who’s motivated to stop sucking their thumb but keeps forgetting may benefit from a visual reminder. Try tying a bow or elastic band around their thumb (not too tight!) or putting a temporary tattoo on the back of their hand so they remember to stop before they even start.

Use a hand stopper

This flexible brace attaches to your child’s elbow and prevents flexing, so they can’t bend their arm enough to bring their hand to their mouth. If your child’s habit is severe, this may be the only tool that helps — but it may also limit their movement so much they’ll feel frustrated.

Bring them to the dentist

Your child may need a nudge from someone other than you (don’t take it personally) in order to kick the thumb-sucking habit for good. Make a dentist appointment and ask the pro to talk with your little one about taking good care of their mouth and teeth.

Most pediatric dental offices have lots of colorful, kid-friendly educational resources — and, at the very least, they may be able to put your mind at ease as to whether the habit is interfering with your child’s oral development.

Did you know?

Did you know that thumb sucking in the womb may be an early sign of future handedness? It’s true!

In a 2005 study, researchers followed 75 children who were seen sucking their thumbs in the womb. They found that all of the babies who had sucked their right thumbs were now right-handed (at the ages of 10 to 12). Two-thirds of the babies who had sucked their left thumbs were left-handed.

Clearly, there may be something instinctual in a baby’s desire to prefer one thumb over the other — but why do babies suck their thumbs at all?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, all babies are born with an intense need to suck. And that’s a good thing, because sucking is how babies eat from the breast or a bottle.

Babies also find the sucking sensation soothing and many continue to do it outside of feeding sessions. While some babies and toddlers prefer using pacifiers to satisfy their sucking needs, other babies find their thumbs or fingers to be the best — and most available! — tool for self-soothing.

Most parents who have concerns about thumb sucking are worried it will cause long-term damage to their child’s teeth, mouth, or jaw. Especially considering the cost of orthodontic treatments, these fears are completely understandable!

Thankfully, the American Dental Association (ADA) asserts that most children will stop thumb sucking on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. And even after age 4, doctors don’t recommend parents aggressively try to stop the behavior because putting too much pressure on your child can have the opposite effect.

Here’s more good news: If your child only sucks their thumb infrequently — like at bedtime — or keeps their thumb passively in their mouth as opposed to strongly sucking, there isn’t much risk of long-term side effects.

It may even benefit their immune system: A 2016 study suggests that kids who suck their thumbs receive so much exposure to common household microbes that it may reduce their risk of allergies and asthma. (This isn’t a green light for your kiddo to lick the table at your local fast-food joint, but it’s still reassuring.)

On the other hand, if your child is a vigorous or consistent thumb-sucker, you may want to make a plan for phasing out the behavior. The ADA says kids who suck their thumbs beyond the age of 6 or so (when the permanent teeth come in) can disrupt the growth of their mouth and the alignment of their teeth.

The authors of one case report suggest that breaking the habit can stop or reverse many of the problems associated with thumb sucking, though some kids will still require orthodontic correction even after the habit is broken.

Is it the end of the world if your child is still sucking their thumb when they’re 4 years old? No — but it can still be stressful for you as a parent, especially if the behavior continues after your child has entered kindergarten.

If you’re struggling to help your kiddo quit their thumb-sucking habit (or wondering if the thumb sucking may be related to deeper issues with stress or anxiety), call your child’s doctor and make an appointment. They can evaluate your child’s mouth, talk to your child about their reasons for thumb sucking, and point you both toward the next step.