Gentle Ways to Stop Thumb-Sucking

By Janelle Turk

March 17, 2020

Janelle is a mother of 4 beautiful children, RN, sleep coach, lactation counselor and prenatal coach. She has a passion for working with new Mamas and easing the transition into parenthood. She believes in the value of qualified and professional support with zero judgement attached. "It's only a problem if it's a problem for you"!

Thumb-sucking is a very normal, natural thing for babies to do. Babies have a natural sucking reflex and many have it even in the womb. This is an important reflex, as it quite simply helps them feed. Most experts say that as long as Thumb-sucking stops by the time permanent teeth are coming in, then it is not likely a problem. The risk is that if your baby sucks his thumb while his permanent teeth are coming in, there can be physical changes to your child’s mouth that can affect his teeth, bite, and even speech. Research has shown that babies start to lose their sucking reflex by the age of 6 months, and if they continue to suck their thumbs past the age of 4-6 then it is going to be more difficult to quit the habit, as it is emotionally based, and has become a habit or addiction.

The upside is with an older child they are capable of adapting different tools of self-soothing, and they can communicate their needs to us. So, What are some ways that we can help our little ones stop thumb-sucking when the time comes?

Get your child on board

Like with any habit, we as humans need to be willing to change in order to make that change happen. We can try and “pump” our little ones up for this change with lots of positive
reinforcement, lots of positive talk about being a big boy or girl. Talk to your child, and have an honest conversation about why it is important to quit, and what they will accomplish! If your child is not receptive to the idea of quitting, try dropping the subject for a few weeks, and then try again, sometimes a little time and space for them to process the idea can help.

Stay Positive & Be Patient

I get it, Mama, it can be hard to stay positive if something is “driving you up the wall!”. Try and be patient with your little one. Resist that urge to pull his thumb out of his mouth, as this could bring up negative feelings and associations with thumb sucking. Especially with older children, this could end up making them feel ashamed, frustrated, and won’t help them to quit, as it will drive them toward the main self-soothing tool they have— Thumb sucking! Gentle reminders and encouragement are key.

Identify Triggers & limit them

Often children will suck their thumb when they are tired, bored, sad. Some might be triggered by watching TV, long car rides, etc. So while you are trying to break the habit try and stay busy, keep him stimulated, and get plenty of sleep so he isn’t overtired. You can even introduce a lovie or blanket that will remind him that he isn’t alone, and give the opportunity for extra cuddles at bedtime.

Reinforce positive behaviour

Make a chart and track how many days your child can go without thumb sucking. You can even add in how many “slip-ups” are allowed in a day, and track those too. If you see any
wins at all, put up a sticker, & give tons of praise. Work toward a reward, it could be something small like a treat he has wanted or a small toy. Working toward a bigger reward such as an experience (outing for ice cream, a park he has wanted to go to, a movie) could be your big end goal.

Physical Barriers

If you find that you have tried everything, there are some other options to help deter the sucking such as:

• Using a sleep sack in younger babies or toddlers that contains their arms can be a useful tool, the swaddlenot is a great example of this type of sleep sack
• painting the nail with a bitter substance- you can get different products over the counter that are safe for children
• wearing a glove/sock/mitten to act as a reminder
• Bandage the thumbs
• Dentists may provide mechanic devices to assist as well, it is a great idea to talk to your dentist so they can monitor any changes in your child’s mouth

Ultimately there is no one way to go about stopping thumb-sucking, but providing support, love and being patient with your little one will go a long way. If you find you and your child are struggling with finding a way to stop thumb-sucking, please reach out for support. The Mama Coach is here for you and can help you come up with a plan and provide encouragement for you. You Got This Mama!

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