I have a confession to make: I was a thumb sucker when I was a kid, and I remember how hard it is to kick the habit. While it's not uncommon for children to rely on their thumbs as a way to calm themselves well into the preschool years, many moms worry that their children's thumb sucking will become a long-term habit — and for good reason.
Long-term thumb suckers are at risk for speech delays and dental problems down the road. Case in point is the 9-year-old son of one mom, Jael S. She lamented, "He now has an overbite and his teeth are becoming crooked."
Why Kids Suck Their Thumbs
Most kids suck their thumbs because it's soothing. When babies suck on their mother's breast or a bottle, it provides comfort. As they grow into toddlers, they continue the sucking habit as a way to soothe themselves when they are tired, bored, or anxious.
Connie S.'s experience confirmed this. She said her twins' thumb-sucking habits were their way of comforting themselves and that it was soothing for them. (Fortunately, they stopped the habit on their own at the age of 6 when their baby teeth began to fall out.)
When Does It Become a Problem?
The question on many moms' minds is: when does thumb sucking become a problem?
Some moms say it's when their child is the only thumb sucker left in their playgroup. They worry about the social implications. Barbara R. said of her two thumb suckers, "I didn't want kids to make fun of them."
For others, it's not as much about age as it is about health. Amanda G. is just one of many moms who said her daughter sucked her thumb so vigorously that it "got all blistered and bumpy and raw." Sara S. is concerned about all the germs her child ingests when she sucks her thumb.
How Can You Break the Thumb-Sucking Habit?
- Talk to your child. Explain what you're worried about. Kids respond better when they know why they are being told "no."
- Enforce thumb-sucking limits. Giving up the thumb all at once isn't easy for a child. Cathy C. told her 3-year-old that it was OK to suck her thumb in bed, but not anywhere else. The habit tapered off on its own.
- Provide a replacement coping skill. Like adults, kids find it hard to break habits if they don't have an alternative way of coping. Consider letting your child have a "lovey" or "fidget" to squeeze when they're anxious.
- Help your child recognize the habit. Sara S. said of her daughter, "I just reminded her about it every time I saw her doing it." Not all kids are conscious that they are sucking their thumbs, especially when they're bored or tired. Pointing it out can help them become more self-aware.
- Enlist your dentist's help. The American Dental Association recommends breaking the thumb-sucking habit before your child's permanent teeth come in (or before age 5). Your child's dentist can help explain how sucking their thumb can push those new teeth out of alignment.
- Tap an expert resource. Krista A. recommends the book Helping the Thumb-Sucking Child by Rosemary Van Norman. As she shared, "It talks about ways to help the child stop" and helped bring her first-grade son's thumb sucking to an end.
What Moms Don't Agree On
One thing Circle of Moms members do not agree on is whether or not to coat your child's thumb with bad-tasting products, a thumb-sucking cure called "taste aversion." Some say it's cruel and prefer to use a band-aid instead. Others say things like vinegar and Tabasco sauce worked well for their kids.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.