For an infant, thumb-sucking comes as a totally natural reflex. This sucking reflex is an instinct linked to breast-feeding. For one thing, their little thumbs seem to instinctually find a way into their mouths. Thumb-sucking soothes a baby and may even help an infant more easily drift off to sleep. Babies most often suck when they feel hungry or sleepy.

Despite how natural it is, parents sometimes worry that thumb-sucking is a bad habit. But thumb-sucking is harmless - at least until a child begins growing in his or her permanent teeth around the age of 4 or 5. At that point, vigorous thumb-sucking can cause negative changes to a child's palate and to the alignment of their emerging teeth.

Fortunately, most children outgrow the habit before they reach school-age, and once they do, peer pressure exerts its influence on those who still suck their thumbs.

To help your child quit their thumb-sucking habit:

  • Consult your dentist. Pediatric dentists know how to speak to a child about the effects of thumb-sucking in ways that children understand.
  • Get to the source of the sucking. An older child who thumb-sucks likely has a reason. If a child continues thumb-sucking, this may be a sign that the child feels bored, anxious, or depressed. Work on dealing with the potential underlying causes to help with the transition from sucking to stopping.
  • Make the thumb less suck-worthy. Your dentist or pediatrician may be able to recommend a bitter-tasting medicine or substance that can be safely used to coat your child's thumbs. Other options include placing a bandage on the thumbs or having your child sleep with socks on their hands to keep from falling back on the habit as they sleep.
  • Give kids a thumbs-up for progress. Praise a child who finds the inner resources to tackle a soothing, pleasurable habit. You could use a star chart or some sort of agreed-upon reward. Positive words of encouragement may be enough!