How to Stop Thumb Sucking In Older Children

Thumb sucking is a problem in the older child. Parents know that their children need to stop once they get to a certain age. But parents may not know an effective way to make help their children break the habit. After all, it isn’t easy to stop thumb sucking when a child has been doing it for years, ever since he or she was a baby. You may well wonder: why do babies suck their thumbs, anyway? And why is thumb sucking so addictive?

Thumb sucking is a wonderful comfort to babies who need more sucking than they can get from their feedings. It’s also resourceful. A baby doesn’t need an adult to show him how to suck his thumb. It’s something he can figure out on his own. And it’s something he can do to make himself feel better, no adults needed, thank you very much.

Babies do need lots of sucking. But a baby can only suck so much, drink so much milk, from the bottle or breast. When baby’s full, he has to stop feeding or he’ll get a tummy ache.

Thumb sucking, on the other hand, won’t give baby a tummy ache. That’s even if he sucks his thumb for hours on end. Also, unlike say, the pacifier, the thumb is always around. It can’t get dropped or lost. (Maybe that’s why some babies suck on their fingers or thumbs even before they are born.)

That’s all well and good, but at a certain point, kids become too old for the comfort of the thumb. Thumb sucking is literally for babies. Taken too far, the habit can affect a child’s bite (and his social life). The American Academy of Pediatrics says that treatment for dental problems caused by thumb sucking is generally needed only in children who continue to suck their thumbs past the fifth birthday.

The question is: how do you make them stop? How do you get your kid to break the habit and stop sucking his thumb? That is before he wrecks his teeth (and loses all his friends)?

Thumb Sucking and Peer Pressure

First of all, take heart: a lot of children stop sucking their thumbs between the ages of 2-4 just on their own, with no prompting. Past that age, an older child is going to hear about it if he is still sucking his thumb. The other children his age may even refuse to play with him, because his thumb sucking makes him a “baby.” It may seem harsh to us adults, but this is how children learn the social code of their society. They learn how to act around kids their own age through the teasing and insults of their peers.

Such peer pressure should make the older child stop sucking his thumb soon enough. At least during the day when the child is in school or on the playground. The older child may however, still continue to suck his thumb in his sleep, just as he did when  he was a baby. Some older children may manage to stop sucking their thumbs most of the time, but resume the habit when they are under stress.

As the child begins to put limits on his thumb sucking, parents can begin to take heart. The child is gradually moving away from thumb sucking altogether. During this time he will find new ways  to comfort himself.

The Teeth

Thumb sucking usually doesn’t cause problems with a child’s bite until the permanent teeth are in. At this point, thumb sucking can change the shape of the roof of the mouth (the palate). Thumb sucking after the permanent teeth are in can also affect the way the teeth line up inside the mouth (alignment). It should be noted that very vigorous thumb sucking can also affect a child’s baby teeth. A child who is still sucking his thumb at age 5 should be seen by the dentist.

Here are some tips to help the child over four years of age break the thumb sucking habit:

Have a conversation about thumb sucking. . . Explain to your child that thumb sucking can affect the bite and may also cause the kids to make fun of him. Ask your child how he feels about that. Does he want to stop sucking his thumb? What can he do instead of thumb sucking, when the urge to put his thumb in his mouth comes on?

. . .then ignore it. Some kids suck their thumbs to get attention. They want to see what you will do. They want to see if you’ll get angry at them. Or if you’ll sit down and have a nice long chat about thumb sucking, which is also a form of attention.

Arrange a chat with the dentist. Having the dentist talk to your child about how thumb sucking can hurt his bite may have more of an impact on your child than a talk with you. The dentist wears a white coat and seems important. Your child may accept the advice he stop thumb sucking from the dentist. The dentist may also be able to fit your child for a mouth guard to help prevent thumb sucking.

Do something nice when they try hard. If your child takes steps to stop the thumb sucking, show your child you’ve noticed. Take your child for a walk, or read his favorite book to him in the middle of the day (instead of waiting for bedtime). Let your child mark each day he succeeds in not sucking his thumb on a calendar you provide for this purpose.

Offer a substitute for times of stress. Does your child sucks his thumb when he’s upset or stressed out? Try a cuddle or comforting words. You can bring your child a stuffed animal or a pillow and suggest he give it a squeeze.

Remind him oh-so-gently. If your child forgets and begins to suck his thumb, suggest he stop in as gentle a tone and words as you can muster. Don’t insult him or make him feel bad about this lapse. If it happens in public, wait until you get home to say something. At home, you can suggest the two of you have a special signal for when that happens (for instance: blink three times, tug on an ear, touch the tip of your nose).

Make thumb sucking unpleasant. Remember Violet from the Peanuts cartoons? Her Italian grandma put chili pepper on the children’s thumbs to get them to stop their thumb sucking. You can try applying vinegar, which makes the thumb taste different without being too spicy. Or you can try putting a bandage on the thumb.

Patience is a virtue. Finally, remember that thumb sucking is a habit and a hard one to break. It’s more difficult to stop thumb sucking than to stop using a pacifier. With the pacifier there is only oral sensation. With thumb sucking there are two sensations: the feeling in the mouth and the feeling in the thumb. That makes a thumb sucking habit doubly difficult to break.

When you feel like nothing is going to make your child quit sucking his thumb, take a deep breath and compose yourself. Getting upset and putting pressure on your child is not going to get him to stop sucking his thumb. In fact, such behavior may even delay your child’s progress. Besides, once your child goes to school, it’s almost certain peer pressure will do what you could not. The other kids will, with their teasing, get him to stop the thumb sucking, for good.

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  1. thanks for making me relax. I will not get angry now by seeing my child sucking the Fingers instead I will try to engage him in new play activities

  2. Your advice is wonderful for an apparently normal family situation but just imagine the compounded effect of peer bullying on top of instability & insecurity in the home. I am that child & I suggest every compassionate attempt be made for the child before allowing said child to be bullied into conformity. IT DOESNT WORK

    • Um. Who said anything about bullying a child into conformity? This piece doesn’t suggest anything like that.

  3. I would like to know how, at age 10, to get my daughter to stop sucking her thumb. Apparently no teasing or peer pressure at school to work on her. Just at home. Now a sudden development of a lisp. I’m thinking dental device but braces are soon to come anyway.

  4. There are guards that orthodontist can install to help stop thumb sucking. We have tried all these tips and even the teasing at school doesn’t seem to phase her. She doesn’t care much what other students think and she runs with the same friends since 1st grade… Orthodontist is our next step, this was recommended to us by her dentist

    • You don’t mention your daughter’s age, so it’s difficult to offer advice, if that is what you seek. The orthodontist should be able to explain to her that she is damaging her health. And certainly your daughter will reach an age where she is no longer comfortable doing something babyish in front of her peers.

  5. I am twelve and I’m in 7th grade. I’ve been sucking my thumb since I was like 2ish and I can’t stop. I would really like to because this one boy is really mean about it. My friends try to help me but it doesn’t work. My parents don’t even know about it.

    • How don’t your parents know about it? Are they vision-impaired? Your friends can’t help with this. The only one who can deal with this problem is you. If you resolve to quit, you’ll quit. You’ll paint your thumb with bitter substances, catch yourself in the act and stop, chew gum, do something else, anything but suck your thumb. You can do this. Of course you can.

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Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12, communications writer, and education blogger at the Kars4Kids blog.