Many Children Suck Their Thumbs

Babies and young children often suck their thumbs, pacifiers, and other objects. It's a perfectly normal reflex. Some parents worry about it, but as children get older, thumb-sucking becomes less common. The habit is harmless if a young child does it now and then during bedtime or a stressful event.

When it's a problem

Older children between ages 2 to 4 who keep sucking their thumbs or fingers may need help to stop the habit. This help can come from parents, a dentist, or an orthodontist. Long-term (chronic) thumb-sucking can cause the child’s permanent teeth to push forward. This creates an overbite.

If you’re not sure how to stop the thumb-sucking, talk with your child’s dentist. If your child is already thumb-sucking less often, you likely don't need to do anything. That’s particularly true if the child still has baby teeth.

If the habit stops before your child gets permanent teeth, dental problems often correct themselves. Some children may want to stop sucking their thumb on their own to prevent being teased, which can happen.

How to break the habit

Try these methods:

  • Ignore the behavior. Most often children will stop on their own. They are likely to stop as they get older due to peer pressure.

  • Use rewards. Say something positive whenever you see that your child is not sucking their thumb. You might put a star on a calendar when your child goes without thumb-sucking for a day. Stars could mean your child gets an extra story, a trip to the library, or some other reward.

  • Get help. A dentist or orthodontist can tell you how to slowly phase out these rewards to keep the habit from returning.

  • Correct the cause. Manage causes of stress and anxiety and provide comfort to your child.

  • Try a device. The orthodontist may need to place a special device (dental appliance) in your child's mouth. The device will serve as a reminder to your child not to suck their thumb, or to keep the thumb slightly away from the roof of the mouth. This interferes with the suction that occurs when thumb-sucking.

Remember that thumb-sucking is harmless in young children. Balance the stress caused by breaking the habit instead of letting the child stop when ready. If your child is older, ask your dentist for advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Mahammad Juber MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
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