Thumb-sucking is normal in babies and young children. They have a natural urge to suck that starts in their first few months of life or even before birth. Babies may also suck on their fingers or hands, or items such as pacifiers.
Many babies suck their thumbs to soothe themselves. Thumb-sucking can become a habit when it's used for comfort. They may comfort themselves when they feel hungry, afraid, restless, or sleepy.
Most children who suck their thumbs stop on their own between ages 3 and 6 years old. Long-term thumb-sucking (after age 4 or 5) may cause dental problems. It can make a child's teeth uneven or push the teeth outward and can affect the roof of the mouth. Thumb-sucking also may cause speech problems, including lisping and thrusting out the tongue when talking.
Thumb-sucking usually isn't a problem in children at preschool age or younger.
If you are concerned about your child's thumb-sucking, talk with your child's doctor or dentist.
Simple home treatment options stop most children from sucking their thumbs. But if your child has a sucking habit around age 4 or older, there may be other treatment options. Some of these may include:
- Behavioral therapy.
- Thumb devices.
- Devices for the mouth.
Most children will stop on their own if you give them time. Children who suck their thumbs may need treatment if they:
- Continue to suck a thumb often or with great intensity around age 4 or older. (A callus on the thumb is one sign of intense sucking.)
- Ask for help to stop.
- Develop dental or speech problems as a result of sucking their thumb.
- Feel embarrassed or are teased or shamed by others.
Rewarding a child for not thumb-sucking
Small rewards are a great way to motivate your child. If you reward your child often and regularly for not thumb-sucking, they are more likely to succeed.
- Set a goal for how long your child will try to go without thumb-sucking.
Start with one day, or even part of a day. Then aim for longer periods. Let your child pick a reward for reaching that goal.
- Reward your child on the first day.
Then reward your child every other day for good progress. Rewards might be small toys, markers, a favorite treat, or a privilege like a trip to the park.
- Chart your child's progress.
During the second week, use a calendar or a progress chart that identifies the days of the week. Let your child put stickers on or mark the days that pass without thumb-sucking.
- Set new goals.
After the first goal is reached, set a new, longer goal. For example, if the first goal was 2 weeks without thumb-sucking, the next goal could be 4 or 6 weeks. After this goal is reached, set another, such as 3 months. Make sure your child is rewarded for reaching every milestone.