Thumb-sucking behaviour is a natural reflex for infants and toddlers, providing comfort and security during their early years of development. It is a normal activity that many children engage in, and it typically diminishes as they grow older and discover other ways to soothe themselves.

But has your child’s thumb-sucking habit gone from comforting to concerning? As much as we want to comfort our children, thumb-sucking past age four can potentially lead to dental problems like crooked teeth, misalignment and changes in the roof of the mouth.

As a parent, you can help your child break the habit with these 8 quick fixes.

Why Some Children Suck Their Thumbs?

Thumb or finger-sucking is a common habit in babies and young children to comfort themselves when they feel hungry, restless, quiet, sleepy, afraid or bored. Children suck to make themselves feel secure, and some babies might eventually develop a habit of thumb-sucking when they’re in need of soothing or going to sleep. 

While thumb-sucking is harmless if the child does it now and then, children who often suck their thumbs or with great intensity at the age of 4 or 5, or those still sucking their thumbs at age 6, are already a concern for dental development.

What are the Effects of Prolonged Thumb Sucking

Prolonged thumb sucking can have several negative effects on a child’s teeth alignment, jaw development, and speech patterns. The effects of prolonged thumb sucking on teeth may include crooked teeth, bite problems, misaligned teeth, overjet, and speech impediments. The intensity and duration of thumb sucking can impact the severity of these dental problems, with more vigorous sucking causing permanent, significant changes.

Prolonged thumb sucking can lead to growth impediments of the upper jaw and skin problems, as well as excessive exposure to germs, which may affect speech articulation and require speech therapy. Therefore, it is important for parents to be aware of the potential negative effects of prolonged thumb sucking and to encourage their child to stop the habit, especially as the permanent teeth start to come in.

Parents should not pressure their children to stop, but by talking to them about it, the child may stop on their own. If the habit stops before the child gets permanent teeth, dental problems often correct themselves. Treatment may be needed if the habit persists.

8 Quick Fixes to Discourage Thumb Sucking for Children

1. Positive Reinforcement

Using praise and rewards for not sucking the thumb can be more effective than punishment as it creates a positive and encouraging environment for the child. According to the Mayo Clinic, instead of covering the child’s thumbnail with a bitter substance, it is recommended to use positive reinforcement, reward charts, and gentle reminders to foster a sense of achievement when the child refrains from thumb-sucking.

Positive reinforcement can make them feel proud of themselves and motivated to continue avoiding thumb-sucking. It also helps create a more desirable choice for the child to not suck their thumb.

2. Identifying Triggers

Observing and addressing the situations or times when the child is most likely to suck their thumb is an important step in helping them break the habit. It’s essential to identify triggers such as stress, boredom, sleepiness, or anxiety.

By addressing the underlying reasons for thumb-sucking, parents can help their children find alternative ways to cope with these emotions or situations.

3. Offer Alternatives

To discourage thumb-sucking, parents can offer distractions, comfort objects, and alternative soothing techniques. Using preferred activities, music, or comfort objects like stuffed toys, blankets, or pacifiers can help the child feel more relaxed and better able to handle the urge to suck their thumb.

Additionally, parents can consider using reward charts, gentle reminders, and positive reinforcement to encourage the child positively when they refrain from thumb-sucking.

These approaches create a supportive environment and provide the child with alternative coping mechanisms, ultimately helping them break the habit effectively.

4. Creating a Bedtime Routine

Creating a calming bedtime routine can help the child feel more relaxed and ready for sleep, reducing the need for thumb-sucking as a sleep-inducing habit. It can include reading a book, listening to calming music, or using a favourite stuffed animal or blanket as a comfort object.

Establishing a comforting bedtime routine can reduce the need for thumb-sucking as a comfort mechanism.

5. Using Gentle Reminders

Gentle reminders serve as one of the subtle yet effective strategies to help children curb their thumb-sucking habit. It’s crucial to remind them in a way that is supportive and not critical.

Visual cues, such as a special sticker on their thumb or ribbon, can act as a soft deterrent and a non-verbal reminder of their commitment to break the habit. By integrating these cues into everyday life, children can become more self-aware and progressively mindful of their thumb-sucking, leading to a self-prompted cessation of the behaviour.

6. Applying Bitter-Tasting Nail Solutions

Before considering the use of safe, bitter-tasting nail solutions as a deterrent for thumb-sucking, it’s vital for parents to consult with their child’s paediatrician. While these products are designed to be non-toxic, discussing their use with a healthcare professional ensures they are suitable and safe for the child.

A paediatrician can also provide guidance on the appropriate and effective use of such deterrents, taking into account any allergies or sensitivities. Parents must ensure that any solution used is specifically formulated for children and comes with clear usage instructions.

7. Bandaging the Thumb

Using a bandage to cover the thumb can remind children to break away from the habit of thumb-sucking. This method provides a gentle but constant awareness of their behaviour without being invasive or uncomfortable. Parents can explain to the child that the bandage is a sign of their commitment to stop thumb-sucking and can even involve them in choosing colourful or character-themed bandages to make the process more engaging.

8. Wear Thumb Guards

Thumb guards, mittens, or gloves can serve as useful aids in preventing thumb-sucking, especially during sleep when children are less conscious of their actions. Commercial thumb guards are designed to be comfortable enough not to disrupt sleep yet serve as a physical barrier to thumb-sucking.

Similarly, mittens or gloves can be a soft and non-restrictive option that discourages the habit. It’s important for parents to choose an option that the child feels comfortable wearing and make it a helpful tool rather than a punishment to maintain a supportive atmosphere throughout the process.

Orthodontic Appliances to Prevent Thumb Sucking

In cases where the quick fixes do not suffice, orthodontic appliances can be employed as a more robust solution to discourage persistent thumb-sucking habits in children. Below is a list of such apparatuses, including details on their functionality:

Hay Rake

The Hay Rake appliance is designed to impede the comfortable insertion of the thumb into the mouth. It consists of semi-circular prongs that are attached to bands which fit around the child’s back teeth. When a child attempts to suck their thumb, the prongs act as a physical barrier.

Thumb Crib

Another common option is the Thumb Crib, which similarly involves a metal grid that is fixed to the upper molars. Unlike the Hay Rake, the Thumb Crib doesn’t use prongs but rather a semi-circular cage structure that prevents the pleasing sensation normally experienced during thumb-sucking. This appliance not only deters the habit but also aids in re-aligning the teeth and correcting the bite over time.

Bluegrass Appliance

The Bluegrass Appliance, while similar to the Thumb Crib, features a rolling component, often a small roller or bead, affixed along the palatal wire. This rolling part is intended to occupy the child and deflect the compulsion to suck their thumb. Additionally, it helps strengthen the tongue muscles, which contributes to the cessation of the habit.

When to Seek Professional Help

Parents should seek professional help if their child still sucks their thumb beyond the age of 4, especially if it is a frequent and intense habit.

Consulting an orthodontist becomes crucial if thumb sucking has resulted in dental issues, such as misaligned teeth or alterations to the roof of the mouth. These professionals offer a meticulous assessment of the child’s dental health and can tailor a treatment plan to correct any problems and prevent further or permanent damage.

Early intervention by an orthodontist can ensure that the child’s bite and jaw development are on the right track, helping to avoid complicated procedures in the future.

Thumb Sucking FAQs

At what age should a child stop sucking their thumb?

If children continue non-nutritive sucking past 3 years of age, parents should step in to help break this habit. Most children stop sucking between 2 and 4 years old, and less than 1 in 20 children sucks their thumb by the age of 8 years.

Can thumb-sucking cause emotional or social problems?

Thumb sucking is a reflex that is natural in newborns that helps them to feed, and in some babies and children, it becomes a comforting behaviour that helps them self-soothe, feel secure, and go to sleep. The main purpose of digit sucking is for its calming effect, and when a child is upset, the movement used during thumb sucking actually regulates the rhythms of thumbsucking as a tool to help them relax. 

What are the benefits of stopping thumb-sucking?

Stopping thumb sucking can prevent future dental issues if the behaviour continues past a healthy age.

Is using a pacifier better than thumb-sucking?

According to a study, there is no significant difference between the effects of pacifier use and thumb-finger sucking on dental health. However, pacifiers can be taken away, while thumbs cannot, and pacifiers are easier to clean than thumbs.


In the journey to wean a child off thumb-sucking, patience and support from parents are the cornerstones of success. It’s essential to remember that most children naturally outgrow this habit in their own time, and gentle guidance from caregivers can ease the transition.

Crafting a nurturing environment, coupled with positive reinforcement, can encourage children to feel confident in their ability to overcome thumb-sucking without feeling stress or pressure.