How To Help Your Child Stop Sucking Their Thumb

Dear Dr. Bill,

My 5-and-1/2-year-old son still sucks his thumb.  Do you have any suggestions about helping him to break the habit?


Dear Will,

Every human being is born with a sucking reflex—it’s satisfying to a baby and necessary for survival.  Ultrasound images show babies sucking their thumb in the womb.  Most children give up thumb-sucking after they pass through toddlerhood, but many don’t.  One study found that 45% of 3-4 year olds, and 15% of 5 year-olds continued to suck their thumbs.

When thumb-sucking persists into childhood, it can cause a dental problem called “malocclusion”—an improper fit between the upper and lower teeth.  In addition, kids who continue to suck their thumb into the school-age years may face teasing and ridicule from other children.  This can negatively impact their self-esteem for years to come.

Most pediatricians will tell you that it’s nearly impossible to stop a child from sucking his thumb until he decides to stop.  This usually occurs when the negative consequences–such as teasing from other kids—outweigh the positives.

If your son wants to stop sucking his thumb but can’t seem to kick the habit, there are a few things you can do to help him.  Most pharmacies sell a bitter tasting substance called “Stop-zit” which can be applied to a child’s thumb.

You might also try offering him positive rewards for not sucking his thumb.  He might earn a point or token for every hour that he avoids the behavior—and he can trade in the tokens for a special toy or privilege.

Most experts advise against punishing a child for thumb-sucking.  Instead, parents can devise a simple, nonjudgmental signal to remind their child to stop sucking—such as a wink or a neutral word.

Thanks for writing Will.  If you have a question for me about family issues or Christian living, click the “Questions” tab on the Family Expert page.

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