how to stop thumb sucking

Several traits are displayed in the behavior of children that slowly fade away with age. Most of these habits have formed to give an evolutionary edge to the child's survival.  This includes behavior like tantrums, biting, hitting, and screaming.

Most of these behaviors are seen as immature and inappropriate, and children tend to face such behavior as they age. Most such behavior ceases in frequency as children cross the age of 4. However, some children might face difficulty letting such behavior go due to environmental factors.

Understanding the reason behind such behavior is essential to help children phase out of such behavior with age. Understanding why such behavior is displayed and why the child has difficulty letting it go will help reach a long-term sustainable solution for the problem.

In this article, we discuss the habit of toddlers sucking their thumbs and why some children might have difficulty letting go of the habit.

Why do kids engage in thumb-sucking?

Human children are born with an uncontrollable urge to suck at something. This is primarily because this action is required to access their primary food source, breasts. Additionally, modern human toddlers are also fed using bottles with similar caps making the urge to suck essential in ensuring that they get nutrition.

Furthermore, sucking can also help with the teething process to develop strong teeth and eventually develop a bite. This helps them progress from liquid to solid food. This behavior is a key evolutionary trait that helps ensure children's survival because they are more likely to look for nourishment with this behavior.

This irresistible tendency to suck on something is the reason behind the behavior of sucking on their thumbs. The thumb is readily available and is shaped for comfortable sucking, making it a primary choice for toddlers.

While some children learn to suck on pacifiers, a thumb is more readily available and preferred by many children globally.

Since this behavior of sucking on their thumb derives from toddlers’ need to suck on breasts for nourishment, there is a connection made in their psyche regarding the two. Many children might associate the action of sucking on their thumb with the warm memory of receiving nourishment from their mothers.

This association makes thumb-sucking a soothing experience for kids. Many children tend to resort to sucking their thumbs when feeling vulnerable to get a soothing sense of safety in tough situations. This might make it difficult for them to give it up, especially for children who have faced trauma in early childhood.

Thumb sucking is very common among children under 1 year and starts reducing afterward. It is considered normal behavior till the age of 4 among children.

After the age of 4, thumb sucking can be detrimental to a child’s growth as it can impair the growth of teeth and the ability of the child to pick up effective speech.

Therefore, it is important to phase out this behavior before the child turns 4 to ensure that their growth and abilities are not impaired due to this habit.

How to Stop Kids from Sucking Thumbs?

It is essential to have patience with children when making behavioral corrections. Understanding them and helping them reach the changes independently are the best way to solve behavioral issues in the long run.

Here are some effective and humane solutions to tackle this issue:

1. Have a dialogue:

It is important to respect children as individuals and maintain a clear line of communication with them. This helps them become self-aware of their actions and take responsibility for their behavior. This can be initiated by opening a dialogue with them regarding issues you want to address, including thumb-sucking.

Sit them down and talk to them regarding the habit. Give them your undivided attention when they communicate back, this makes them feel valued for their opinions and take accountability for their actions. 

Ensure you don’t adopt an accusatory tone or sentence when discussing the issue within. Instead, try to understand why they do it and gently explain to them that it is not socially acceptable. 

2. Place limits:

It can be difficult for anyone to abandon a habit entirely from the get-go. This can be especially difficult for children when it’s a frequent habit. In such cases, it would be ideal to start by limiting the habit instead of going for total prohibition.

Start by restricting the activity in specific public places. They would be likely to cooperate and stop indulging in thumb-sucking in such settings as long as they have the mental comfort of doing it at home.

These restrictions can slowly be extended in front of non-family members, helping keep the habit confined to your home. The next step could be making it a bedtime habit, restricting it to the short time they have before bed. This will eventually prompt them to give up on the habit themselves.

3. Gentle reminders:

Relapsing on a habit you are trying to give up on is quite natural, even for adults. It is important to take such a relapse as a minor setback and not treat it as a failure. Being harsh on such setbacks can leave the child emotionally closed off and defeated.

Instead, try to give them gentle reminders about your discussion to them. This is bound to increase their sense of accountability for their habits and help them stop sucking their thumb for good.

4. Understand triggers:

There are several reasons why your child is finding it difficult to give up this habit. It is known as a soothing habit that can give children a sense of safety and warmth. Most children who continue the habit do so due to feelings of vulnerability.

Understanding why your child resorts to thumb-sucking might be the crucial piece of the jigsaw to help you solve it. However, most children do not have enough self-awareness to be able to tell it themselves. You should observe their behavior prudently and find out what their triggers are.

Observe the situation when they resort to the habit and try to find a pattern. This can help you understand your child’s triggers. Help your child overcome such triggers confidently, as that would automatically eradicate the thumb-sucking habit.

5. Rewards system:

Positive reinforcements always work better than negative reinforcements. Instead of threatening your child with punishment for practicing the habit, offer them a chance at the reward for being able to kick the habit altogether.

This can start small with a daily reward where they get a small gift at the end of every day that they have managed to control the habit. This can be extended to a bigger reward for a week. Amp it up with an enticing reward for a month’s restriction.

This helps children work positively towards the goal instead of doing so out of fear. The focus is shifted to the reward rather than the habit itself. It can also make it a game for the children, and they will play to win.

Things to Avoid

Opening dialogue and helping your child quit the habit is the most effective long-term solution for thumb-sucking.  Ordering them to do it for you is wrong as all it teaches children is to hide the habit from you.

Several ineffective and inhumane techniques are commonly used to get children to stop the habit. Some such techniques to avoid are:

i). Direct confrontation:

The communication cannot be an accusatory order coming at them. Children don’t understand that they are doing something wrong and definitely don’t understand why it might be wrong. Getting an order might leave them confused and alone.

This is not an effective way to get your child to drop any activity. Don’t yell at them to scare the habit out of them. They can’t be made to give up a habit for you, they need to get a sense of doing it for themselves.

ii). Finger caps:

Covering your child’s fingers with protective caps or mittens is another commonly proposed technique to stop the habit. However, this merely makes the habit inconvenient for children and does not necessarily eradicate it.

Furthermore, it is not possible to use such equipment in all social settings and scenarios, and it offers very little deterrence for a brief period of time in a handful of settings.

iii). Bitter nail polish:

This has to be one of the most inhumane ways to stop a child from thumb-sucking. Instead of talking to their children, some people propose that you train them like animals by applying bitter nail polish on their fingers to help them stop sucking their thumbs.

Apart from the apparent risk of exposing your child to harmful chemicals, it is an inhumane way to treat your child.

iv). Reacting to a reflex action:

Sometimes, momentarily children might resort to the habit as a reflex action when faced with specific situations. This could be due to an injury or mishap. They might resort to the habit when feeling vulnerable for a familiar soothing sensation.

It is not healthy to treat such reflex habit as a complete relapse. It would be better to wait for them to be in a better state and talk to them about what caused the reflex.


Children sucking their thumbs might not be ideal or appropriate in social settings. However, it is completely natural. There are several reasons why children might do so, and it would be incorrect to eradicate the habit without understanding why your child does so.

It is also to be noted that the habit is considered natural and safe up till the age of 4, at which point it becomes a deterrent to the child’s development. Therefore, it is unnecessary to seek to eradicate the habit when your child is still a toddler.

It is recommended that you don’t resort to inhumane short-term solutions like bitter nail polish. It is always better to treat your child with respect and help them quit the habit themselves. This can also be highly beneficial for your child's mental and personality development.


1. Why do children engage in thumb-sucking?

Ans: Human children are born with a natural inclination to suck at things. This is evolutionary as the human breasts are their natural food source. This eventually extends to sucking on other things readily available to them, such as their thumb.

2. Why do some children find it difficult to stop sucking their thumb?

Ans: Children get a sense of soothing and warmth from the habit of thumb-sucking. This is because of the memory associated with early nutrition and care from their mother. Therefore, it can be comforting to them to resort to the habit. This might be significantly heightened when faced with trauma and feeling vulnerable.

3. Can you use bitter nail polish to stop your child sucking their thumb?

Ans: Using bitter nail polish is the most inhumane way to stop your child from sucking their thumb. Instead of respecting your child as a human, this technique teaches you to train them like an animal. Furthermore, you could expose your child to harmful chemicals in the process. This is a short-term inhumane solution that could leave long-term repercussions on your relationship with your child, as well as the personality development of your child.

4. What is the right way to help your child stop sucking their thumb?

Ans: Opening up channels of open communication is the key here. You cannot order them to give up a habit. Instead, work on helping them quit it themselves. Try to make them understand that the habit is inappropriate and bad for their health. Then try to understand why they resort to the habit by making keen observations. Enforce it by using gentle reminders and rewards.

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Oliver Nelson

Oliver Nelson is a New York based Health Specialist Writer who completed his graduation from Syracuse University back in 2015. His writings were published in the top Healthcare brands in the United States.

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