Your little one came preloaded with certain reflexes—built-in software, if you will—that help them do complex things, and one of those things is the ability to suck: Suck on a breast, a bottle, a dummy, and yes, their thumbs. Babies were born to suck! In fact, they were sucking before you even met. (You may have caught your first glimpse on the sonogram picture!) This natural habit not only proves important for, you know, eating, but it also boosts feel-good endorphins in your baby’s brain and works with the rest of the 5 S’s to trigger the calming reflex. All great things.

But at some point, almost all parents gaze upon their sweet thumb-sucking cherub and wonder: Will my child be sucking their thumb forever? Do I need to stop this habit, pronto?

First, take a deep breath. There are pretty much no thumb-sucking adults wandering this Earth. Plus, it is totally normal (and very comforting) for toddlers to continue to want to suck. And according to the American Dental Association (ADA), most children stop sucking their thumb on their own between the ages of 2 and 4 years old. Does that mean you do not have to intervene if your child is a hardcore thumb-sucker? Unfortunately, it does not.

When a child continues to suck their thumb after their permanent front teeth come in, the habit can interfere with the proper growth of their mouth and the alignment of their teeth. The more often and intensely a toddler sucks, the higher the risk of dental issues. (PS: Prolonged dummy use can affect teeth similarly. The difference: It is easier to wean a child from an object than an appendage!)  While future orthodontic worries are legit, if your child’s ditches their thumb-sucking habit by age 3 or 4, there is actually little likelihood of any long-term effects.

Now the question is: How to break the habit in time? Here, six tips to help.

Lead with respect.

Whenever you talk to your child about their thumb-sucking, make sure you are below your child’s eye level. This stance works wonders for making your child feel respected. And just a friendly reminder, when we treat someone with respect, we do not use any harsh or teasing words that can easily make a child feel shame. Instead, keep your words and tone friendly, concentrating on the behaviour, not the kiddo.

Find a substitute.

Before you can urge your child to stop sucking their thumb, it is a good idea to ask them why they do it. (If they cannot verbalise their why, pay attention to their when, to figure it out yourself.) Oftentimes, for instance, children turn to their thumbs when they are feeling a little insecure or need comfort. Once you drill down on why your child craves their thumb, you can work together to figure out what they can do instead. If your child sucks to help them settle in for night-night, a lovey might be a stellar replacement. (Spy your child mindlessly plugging their thumb into their mouth? Hand them their lovey, instead.)

Talk about consequences.

And we are not talking punishment! If you have an older toddler, share with your child how thumb-sucking can impact their teeth and skin. After all, a lot of children have no idea that sucking their thumb is a habit they need to ditch! Try things like: Sucking your thumb can give the soft skin on your thumb an ouchy! I don’t want you to get a boo-boo! Or Thumb-sucking can make your teeth crooked. Let’s try to keep your smile straight. If you need to, you can always ask your child’s dentist to explain what could happen to their teeth if they do not stop sucking.

Baby step success.

If your child sucks their thumb at various points throughout the day, consider allowing one of those thumb-sucking timeslots to remain...just for a little bit longer. For example, if your child tends to thumb-suck at naps and when you read stories, you might want to consider allowing your child to only suck their thumb during storytime. This gradual change can make the overall goal more attainable—and help sidestep some power struggles.

If your thumb-sucker is at least 2, try a star chart to encourage this behaviour. Simply choose three behaviours to track: Two your child is already rocking (say, washing hands after potty and brushing teeth) and the one you want to change (no thumb-sucking at naptime). Next, let your child know that for each day they do not suck their thumb at naptime, they will get a star on their chart. Once they get 10 stars, they will be treated to a special reward!

Gossip about your child.

No, we do not mean you should spread rumors! Instead, when you know your child is in earshot, loudly whisper to another person (or even a stuffed animal!) about how proud you are of your child for the habit they are trying to break. (Children are more likely to believe praise that is overheard than if it is told to them directly—adults, too!) Try saying things like: Marcus has been doing such a good job not sucking his thumb. I am so proud of him. Or I know it is hard for Lydia to stop sucking her thumb, but she is doing so great using her lovey at bedtime instead. Later, repeat the same compliment to someone else. Not only with this please your child so very much, but it will also motivate them to keep working at it!

Enlist helping hands.

For stubborn suckers, the ADA suggests that you help remind your child that their thumb is off limits by gently bandaging their thumb or placing a sock or mitten on the hand at bedtime. In addition, if your child really wants to stop, but requires a constant reminder, talk to your child’s dentist or pediatrician about possibly using a special device for the mouth that makes it uncomfortable for kiddos to continue sucking their thumb.

No matter what methods you choose, remember: don't put too much pressure on your child to stop. Your child will get there eventually!

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