Babies are born with the natural desire to suck. In fact, many babies suck their thumbs while in the womb. This sucking reflex allows the baby to take in food, in the form of breast milk or baby formula. That’s why a baby when they are not hungry will become calm when sucking on a pacifier.

Babies use thumb-sucking as a way to calm themselves when they are tired, bored or upset. This is normal and usually a baby will slowly stop sucking their thumb as they grow older. However, if the child is still actively sucking their thumb after 4 or 5 years of age, there are good reasons to try to stop it.

Some doctors and dentists warn prolonged thumb-sucking can contribute to:

• speech problems mostly with “S” sounds and other tongue tip sounds.

• dental problems, such as improper alignment of teeth or development of an overbite.

• Prolonged finger sucking also can cause chapped skin, calluses and issues on the nail of the sucked finger.

• thumb sucking that happens at school or during a social situation can cause the child to be made fun of.

• Thumb-sucking after the permanent teeth come in can cause an overbite.

According to Dr. Giridhar Guntreddi, MD, FAAP, if you have a chronic thumb-sucker, here are five steps that may work to help your child put an end to thumb sucking.

1) IGNORE THE HABIT: Ignore the habit: Some children suck their thumbs to get attention, even if it’s negative attention. If you think that may be the case with your child, ignore the habit and encourage other family members to do so, too. If the thumb sucking doesn’t decrease, it’s time to take active steps.

2) EXPLAIN THE IMPORTANCE OF STOPPING: Try to explain in a smooth, understandable way in simple sentences. Preschool kids usually understand if you show them pictures. Never try to pull the thumb/fingers from the mouth at any time.

3) PRAISE YOUR CHILD: Give positive feedback when you observe your child not sucking their thumb or even leaving the glove or guard on the thumb. You may want to consider some type of reward system.

For example: three days of no thumb in the mouth might merit a special activity your child enjoys.

4) ASK YOUR DENTIST FOR HELP: The dentist can do an oral examination to see if the thumb sucking is causing any problems. Because a dentist sees many children with this habit, your dentist can also be a wealth of good advice on techniques that work well and how you can help your child phase out this longtime habit. Some children will respond to the placement of a palatal bar/crib in the mouth for a few weeks.

5) MAKE AN APPOINTMENT WITH AN ORTHODONTIST: The orthodontist can place a temporary item inside your child’s mouth that holds the thumb slightly away from the roof of the mouth. This interferes with your child’s suction, discouraging ongoing thumb sucking.

6) AVOID STRESSFUL SITUATIONS Most of the children use their thumb sucking habit as a soothing/relaxing/comforting remedy. The arrival of a new baby, move to a new house, new relatives visiting or friends staying at the house will be a stressful situation for them. Try to avoid these sorts of situations, if you can.

7) KEEP IDLE HANDS BUSY: Allow the child to be busy with both hands. Engage the child in craft projects, hand games, turning the pages in a toy book – which will keep the thumbs away from the mouth.

8) OFFER A SOFT TOY: If your child is comforted by play, soft toys will help him or her feel reassured and safe. Try giving a new blanket/ plush/ soft stuffed toy; it will do the trick for you. Your child will be preoccupied and forget thumb sucking.

9) MAKE INCENTIVES FUN: For example a reward chart for which they get a mark when they did not suck their thumb for the entire day. Give your child a lot of praise when they earn a mark. Do not pull your child’s thumb out of their mouth. Scolding, slapping the hand or other punishment will only make your child dig in their heels about thumb-sucking.

10) ADDRESSING ANY UNDERLYING ISSUES: If the habit is not responding after trying these tips, it may indicate serious underlying problems, such as depression, neglect, emotional issues, possible abuse or psychosocial issues. Try to look for a cause and discuss with your pediatrician and psychiatrist.

11) KEEP IT UP: If early efforts help your child decrease the habit, keep up the encouragement and give it some time.

For example: many children give up thumb sucking during the day, but continue it briefly while going to sleep. This limited action won’t have any long-term effects. If you’re unsure whether you should be concerned about the ongoing level of your child’s thumb sucking, talk to your pediatrician or dentist for advice.


Health University of Utah,

Giridhar Guntreddi, MD, FAAP, Sanford Health,