Dr. Mona's Mom Blog

All about thumb sucking (with tips to prevent/stop it!)

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Thumb sucking is very natural for babies and young children. It’s a form of exploration early on and can be self-soothing. We want to balance their desire to suck their thumb with other interventions. Here’s what you need to know.

Newborns and thumb sucking

If your child is a newborn, you can introduce a pacifier as this can replace the desire to suck a thumb because it’s soothing. It helps their desire for exploring things with their mouth. If you see thumb sucking during play in infancy, you can gently replace it with a teething or other safe toy that they can “mouth.” This helps them to understand that their innate desire to put things in their mouth is okay, however we’re shifting the focus to something that’s not their thumb. As your child becomes a toddler, thumb sucking can become a hard habit to break. 

Toddlers and thumb sucking

  • Try to avoid saying phrases like, “take your thumb out” or “stop putting your thumb in your mouth.” When you say these things, they will subconsciously want to do it more.
  • Focus on positive reinforcement when their hands are out of their mouth. You can try and say things like, “I see you keeping your hand out of your mouth. That’s great.”
  • Make it fun. If you notice their hands or thumb is in the mouth, excitedly say, “Show me hands in the air!” Then, mimic putting your hands in the air and they will follow. This fun tip can redirect them from the act of sucking their fingers. When their hands are in the air, reinforce it and say things like, “Great job! Hands in the air!!!” Applaud the hands being out of the mouth versus getting disappointed when the hands are in the mouth. 
  • Identify any triggers. Are they doing it when they’re bored, idle or frustrated? When you identify a trigger, find a healthy distraction. If they are sucking their thumb while watching TV, give them a lovey item to cuddle with. If they’re sucking their thumb while bored, give them a toy like a pop toy so they can fidget with it. Thumb sucking while they are frustrated? Teach healthy coping skills like breathing techniques or dancing when calm. 
  • If your child is over 3 and it’s causing issues, speak to your dentist about thumb guards. These include:
    • Dr. Thumb
    • Dr. Finger
    • TGuard
    • Another option is called Mavala Stop (a bitter nail polish). Some kids may not be averse to the taste while others don’t like the bitter smell and become turned off to thumb sucking.
  • For older children (4+), you can explain why you want their hands out of their mouth. Try saying phrases like, “Nice job keeping your hands out of your mouth. That helps us keeps germs away! Why do we keep our hands out of our mouth?” While brushing teeth, explain how nice their teeth look and how keeping the fingers out of the mouth keeps them nice and straight. 
  • For some children, a sticker chart may work. Give a sticker for every day they go without sucking their thumb. Once they accumulate 5 stickers, they get an experience (outing with you or a loved one). 

The take home message

Try to focus on the positive reinforcement versus the negative action. Remember to avoid big reactions when they do have their thumb in their mouth. The more we get upset or try to pull their hands out aggressively, the more likely they may turn to it for comfort. 

Check out this episode of Monday Mornings with Dr. Mona where I answer a mom’s question about how to navigate and stop her 21-month-old from thumb sucking.

P.S. – Got a teething baby? Check out my free guide on my favorite teething remedies!

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All information presented on this blog, my Instagram, and my podcast is for educational purposes and should not be taken as personal medical advice. These platforms are to educate and should not replace the medical judgment of a licensed healthcare provider who is evaluating a patient.

It is the responsibility of the guardian to seek appropriate medical attention when they are concerned about their child.

All opinions are my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or hospitals I may be affiliated with.