Thumbs Up

For today’s Ask Dr.Mom, we will be talking about thumb sucking. This is a topic near and dear to my heart because…well…I was an avid thumb sucker as a child and I certainly remember having difficulty kicking this habit. Fortunately, most children who suck their thumbs give it up on their own volition and without any adverse effects on their teeth.

Still, I get plenty of questions from parents wondering what they should do about their child’s thumb sucking. While most parents realize that sucking is a natural and soothing reflex in babies, they worry about prolonged thumb sucking. So, let’s get to the bottom of thumb sucking and see if there is anything to worry about.

Why do babies suck their thumbs?

  • Sucking is a natural reflex and is a potent soother in babies.
  • Babies and children suck their thumbs (or pacifiers) when tired, bored, or need comfort
  • Children who suck their thumbs are typically easier to put to sleep and tend to start sleeping through the night earlier than their non-thumb sucking peers. That is certainly a plus.

When should I expect the thumb sucking to stop?

  • Well, this certainly varies, however, 85-99% of children who suck their thumbs will stop by 4-5 years old.
  • Many will give it up before this age. The key seems to be this: to not make thumb sucking a big issue. Apparently nagging your child to stop sucking her thumb can have the reverse effect.
  • Most children who are still sucking their thumbs by the time they enter kindergarten will soon give it up. Guess this is one of those rare instances when peer pressure may work in your favor.

Are there any reasons to worry about her teeth?

  • According to the American Dental Association, thumb sucking will not have any adverse effects on permanent teeth as long as the thumb sucking stops before those front permanent teeth erupt. This typically occurs around age 5 or 6.

Any tips for encouraging my child to stop sucking her thumb?

  • First and foremost, make sure your child is ready. If she is age 4 or older and has shown signs she wants to kick this habit, then yes, there are ways you can help her.
  • Praise your child when she is not sucking her thumb. Create a reward chart if necessary.
  • Avoid nagging or embarrassing your child about her thumb sucking. Instead, try distraction and engage her in a game or other activity in which she is using her hands.
  • Involve her in the plan. Have her come up with some of her own ideas on how she can avoid sucking her thumb. Come up with alternatives to thumb sucking when she is bored or tired.
  • Use her dentist or pediatrician to help bring home the message: she is getting to be a big girl and you want her teeth to grow in properly.

Above all, try to remember not to put too much pressure on your child. Soon enough this thumb sucking habit will be but a fond memory of her childhood.

Have any of your children been thumb suckers? Any tips to share on helping them kick the habit?

*Please submit your parenting or health related questions to mommamd4two(at)aol(dot)com. I love answering and featuring your questions here each and every Wednesday*

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27 Responses to Thumbs Up
  1. Merri Ann
    January 19, 2011 | 5:52 am

    My oldest daughter was a thumb sucker and I was one as a child. The nurses teased me at the hospital because she was born with a blister on her thumb. As hard as I tried to introduce the binky instead … she was having none of it.

    But she started showing signs of giving it up at about 3-1/2. She dropped it entirely during the day and only did it at night to get to sleep. Then one night I discovered that if I rubbed her back she wouldn't start sucking her thumb. After about two weeks of me rubbing her back at night, she dropped the habit completely.

    The best advice I got was what you mentioned above … don't make it an issue.

  2. Katherine
    January 19, 2011 | 6:58 am

    I was worried about prolonged thumb sucking, as I remember my siblings sucking their thumbs for a extended period. So I introduced my boys to pacifiers right away. If they were going to suck on something, I wanted it to be something I could take away from them (I know that sounds mean, but it worked very successful with minimal trauma to either of us.)

  3. Elizabeth
    January 19, 2011 | 10:05 am

    as a dentist, I would say that nighttime thumb sucking at home after age 6 often does have consequences. It causes a constricted palate (usually not that big of a deal,) but it can also cause an anterior open bite/malocclusion, which will take orthodontic treatment to correct after cessation of the habit. generally though I agree, you shouldn't make it a big deal. kids wont stop unless they really want to, and if at that point they have difficulty, you can discuss various fixed intraoral appliances with your dentist.

  4. Melissa (Confessions of a Dr. Mom)
    January 19, 2011 | 10:26 am

    Thank you Elizabeth! Wonderful to have input from a dentist here. I appreciate your advice :)

  5. Jill
    January 19, 2011 | 11:22 am

    My oldest son sucked his thumb. He was the best sleeper of all 3 of my kids. He gave it up just before starting kindergarten.

  6. Genny
    January 19, 2011 | 12:32 pm

    You always have such great articles/resources over here, Melissa@! :)

  7. Liz
    January 19, 2011 | 1:11 pm

    No. Though neither of them ever took pacis, so… :)

  8. Missy@Wonder, Friend
    January 19, 2011 | 2:01 pm

    Thank you for this post! I have one thumb sucker and one finger sucker (he sucks the first and middle fingers, upside down, so that the palm of his hand faces out/up… not sure if that makes sense).

    Anyway, my thumb-sucker is almost 5 and still dedicated! 😉 He only resorts to it when he's really, really tired or overwhelmed. Our dentist hounds on it a bit, and it bothers me – I've thought of switching dentists over this issue. He is going to need orthodontia, one way or the other, due to some different issues, so I don't see why we would make a big deal over the thumb. My guess is that he will stop on his own when he's ready. This post really solidified that for me!

  9. Mrs.Mayhem
    January 19, 2011 | 2:18 pm

    Great ideas! None of my kids sucked their thumb or used a pacifier.

    But my kindergartener came home from school a few times sucking her thumb. I was thinking that she must have seen someone at school doing it and wanted to try. She hasn't done it at any other times, so hopefully it won't become a habit.

  10. Cheryl
    January 19, 2011 | 3:00 pm

    None of my kids were thumb suckers or used a paci (altho Lord knows I tried!). I am very, very grateful for that now. But it would've come in handy when they were babies!

  11. Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds
    January 19, 2011 | 4:13 pm

    I adored sucking my thumb as a child. I sucked my left thumb so much that it was actually smaller than my right thumb. It returned to its normal shape eventually because I decided I didn't want to be a thumb sucker when I went to kindergarten. I quit on my own during the day, but I needed help at night. My mom taped up my thumb before I went to bed. I'd remind her on nights she forgot and soon the habit was kicked.

  12. SmartBear
    January 19, 2011 | 4:36 pm

    Great post! As a child and family therapist, I just want to applaud you for encouraging folks to not make an issue out of it and to avoid shame or embarrassment. Truly…that is fabulous!

  13. Life Without Pink
    January 19, 2011 | 6:31 pm

    My son is almost 5 and still does it when he is tired or goes to sleep. When he was a baby he took the pacifier and gave it up right before his 2nd bday. Then started sucking this thumb around 2 1/2 or so…at first we thought it was cute but never expected it would last this long. He is trying to stop. We give him rewards, but like you said I think it wont happen until he is ready. He doesn't do it as often anymore but I cant wait until he is over this habit!

  14. TheBabyMammaChronicles
    January 19, 2011 | 7:46 pm

    I was a terrible thumb sucker! I don't even know why/how I finally stopped.

  15. OHmommy
    January 19, 2011 | 7:49 pm

    I'm glad you included the Dental Association. My husband-dentist says that all the time to his patients.

  16. KLZ
    January 19, 2011 | 7:56 pm

    I know friends who freaked out any time alex's hand even got near his mouth. Glad to know it won't kill him :)

  17. Eat. Live. Laugh. and sometimes shop!
    January 19, 2011 | 8:16 pm

    Oh, I had two thumb suckers. My little guy gave it up very easily around age 3 (I coerced a little bit). My little girl, however, was still sucking at age 6. Suffice to say at that point I had tried everything. Everything. Because at that point it was a big deal (front teeth coming in) and she showed no interest in stopping.

    What finally motivated her — a trip to the American Girl Store (out of town). Seriously. I told her if she went 45 days w/o sucking her thumb we would fly on a plane, take a cab, stay at a fancy hotel and go to the American Girl Store. 45 days later we did just that. She never put that thumb back in her mouth again. Amazing. And a bit embarrassing!!!

  18. parenting ad absurdum
    January 19, 2011 | 8:59 pm

    My older boy was a devoted thumb sucker, and I was worried about how hard it would be for him to stop (I was a thumb sucker too, and I STILL remember my parents making me stop at age three)…but he decided of his own accord to stop just after he turned four – no issues at all!

  19. Cheryl D.
    January 20, 2011 | 12:06 am

    My daughter was a huge thumb sucker! We had her give up the habit right before she turned 5. We involved her in the plan and invested a ton of money in it! We set up a reward chart that lasted two months. For the first month, my daughter received fifty cents per day of NOT thumb sucking. At the end of each week, she got a toy. At the end of a month she received a HUGE gift. For the second month, we dropped the daily fifty cents, but kept the weekly gifts and month gift. In addition, we taped her thumb with bandage tape, just as a reminder, so she'd realize if her thumb went in her mouth. We did this over using the bitter nail polish which seemed too punitive.

    Our method worked like a charm. She stopped sucking her thumb. It's now two years later and she still hasn't sucked!

    The key was that she was really ready to stop sucking!

  20. Annette
    January 20, 2011 | 3:51 am

    I actually sucked my thumb until I was seven! I had a nightime ritual with my stuffed blue bunny in one hand and my thumb from my other hand in my mouth. My mother hid my blue bunny and said it was "lost". Oh it was a harsh reality, but I stopped! Is your daughter still using the binky?…My son still is and I want to get him off of it soon.

  21. Jessica
    January 20, 2011 | 5:11 am

    Great article, I have had no thumbsuckers but lots of pacifier users. So far I have a not so good record of getting rid of them and need to get rid of #3's soon. Could that be your next post please :) ??

  22. Cameron
    January 20, 2011 | 8:00 am

    Isis is a thumb-sucker. I really didn't mind it too much at first. She did start sleeping through the night early & I think it had a lot to do with self-soothing using her thumb. She would wake up & fuss & we would hear her start sucking her thumb & then she'd stop fussing & go back to sleep. It was great! No running in there to pop a paci back in! But it's been hard the whole time because she will suck it until it's raw! It looks awful!!! I've found that using the same breastfeeding cream I used with cracked nipples, but putting it on her thumb make it go away. That's really helping. I don't remember who gave me that tip – it may have been you!

  23. Booyah's Momma
    January 20, 2011 | 6:47 pm

    Oh, thank you for this, Melissa! My almost-5 year old has sucked her thumb voraciously since she was 4 months old, and we've been trying to wean her off of it before she starts Kindergarten next year.

    This advice sounds really sage, though… maybe we've just been pushing too hard, and need to let it end on its own. At least it gives us something else to try!

  24. Cheryl D.
    January 21, 2011 | 12:20 am

    I have a surprise for you at my blog!

  25. Lady Jennie
    January 21, 2011 | 6:51 am

    I sucked my thumb til I was 7 and as a result encouraged the pacifiers for my kids. Eldest loved them and we had a cutting ceremony at age 3 to stop that habit. Second rejected them before he was 1. Third loves them and I assume we're going to need another pacifier cutting ceremony.

    I tried to DM you on twitter, but you don't follow me. I wanted to submit a question: how to get your toddler to swallow anti-biotics when all he does is spit them out?

  26. Jessica
    February 4, 2011 | 8:39 pm

    My oldest is a thumb sucker. He will be 5 in May. He was actually sucking his thumb in the ultrasound at 20 weeks pregnant. You could say he was "born to suck". He does it when he's tired, bored, nervous or mad. We tried weaning him before he turned 3 by reward charts and a huge toy. He did great for about 2 weeks, got his toy and then promptly returned to his old habits. We tried time-outs (I know! We're horrible!) We've tried playing the "don't you wanna be a big boy" card. We've tried it all it seems. I've read before to not nag but I'll be honest neither my husband or I can stand the constant drool on his sleeve, the blistered thumb..or the sound. After reading this, I'm going to have to try again to just leave it alone. I'm certain we've made him feel ashamed about it and that breaks my heart. Thank-you for sharing this!

  27. ChecklistMommy
    February 16, 2012 | 1:46 pm

    Good to know! My 5 yo sucks her middle and ring fingers and I have been wondering if I ought to be worrying about that … now I won’t!