Behavior & Development • Jan 18, 2016

Thumb Sucking and Finger Sucking: 11 ways to break the habit without breaking your budget

A little girl sucks on her thumb.If your thumb or finger-sucking child is 3 years old or over, it’s time to break the habit.  Many articles on this subject focus on talking to your child and offering positive reinforcement, but most toddlers are not interested giving up a constant source of pleasure. If you wait too long to stop the thumb and finger sucking, your child can have permanent changes to their jaw shape, bite, and teeth. Speech can also be affected, and many thumb suckers will need speech therapy. Thumb and finger sucking is normal in the newborn period, and an important way for infants to be able to sooth themselves, but once your child is 3 years old, it’s time to break the habit.  

By age 3-4 years, many thumb and finger sucking children have a gap between their upper and lower teeth and their jaw development has changed, often causing problems with speech. Their tongue muscles also don’t develop correctly, making speech sounds like “s” and “th” difficult. If you wait until after your child’s permanent teeth come in to stop the sucking, they can develop “buck teeth” and an appearance that is not cosmetically pleasing.  

My 4 ½ -year-old has finally quit, and after more than a year of failed efforts, frustration, sleepless nights and crying, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. As a pediatrician, I was frustrated that there is little evidence-based research on effective techniques to stop thumb sucking and finger sucking. Most online articles focused on gentle strategies to quit sucking, like positive reinforcement, keeping little fingers busy with play and art, and helping your child understand why sucking is a bad habit. We started this way, but after a year and a half my daughter was still sucking, and not very interesting in stopping.  This was a deeply rooted habit– she was sucking her thumb on every ultrasound I had before she was born. By the time she finally quit, she needed speech therapy and dental work. I only wish we had gone to stricter techniques sooner. Every child is different, and there is no one right way to stop the habit. The biggest mistake you can make as a parent, though, it too wait too long to help your child break the habit.  

Here are 11 ways to permanently stop finger and thumb sucking without breaking your budget.  Most people need to combine several methods to find success:

 

  • Talk:  Always start by talking to your child about why thumb sucking is a bad habit.  Talking alone doesn’t usually break the habit, but it can help your child decide that he or she wants to quit. Positive motivation to quit is half the battle. Some things to talk about with your child include:

 

  • Germs: thumb and finger sucking spreads germs and makes people sick.
  • Teeth: sucking pushes teeth forward and can make you look funny, and you might need braces.
  • Teasing: Other kids will think you are still a baby or might tease.
  • Speech: As long as you suck your thumb it is hard to learn how to speak the right way. You might sound funny.  
  • YouTube: It worked for us– one night we showed our daughter about six short YouTube videos about thumb sucking. In the middle of one video she announced she was all done sucking her thumb. That was really the turning point, the moment at which she decided for herself that she wanted us to help her stop. Sometimes kids just really need to hear about bad habits from someone other than mom or dad. YouTube is a cheap and easy way to accomplish this.  
  • Chewelry: Jewelry you can chew, or chewlry, is a good substitute to help a toddler stop the sucking without losing the true pleasure they get from oral stimulation. There are many options in many colors on Amazon.com and other sites, most about $10.  
  • Find your child’s favorite thumb-sucking times: Watching TV and sleeping are two common times when kids fall back into their sucking habits. Identify your child’s problem times and then have your child help you devise a quitting plan that focuses on these times.  If nighttime is a problem, try putting socks on hands before bed and attaching the socks to pajama sleeves with safety pins. If watching TV is a problem, try turning off the TV for 5 or 10 minutes every time a child is caught sucking.  
  • Sticker chart or positive reward system: Make a sticker chart and provide lots of praise and positive rewards for success.  At first, your child might need a sticker for every hour he or she goes without sucking. If she goes a whole day, she might need a special reward such as extra books at bedtime.  Eventually you should be able to get to a daily sticker chart.  Once your child makes it to about two weeks without sucking, you are probably home-free.  
  • Praise, all day: Find a way to remind yourself or your child’s caregiver to praise your child for not sucking at least once an hour. Consider setting an alarm or reminder on your phone.  
  • Bad-tasting nail polish: Before you crucify me in the comments and accuse me of child abuse, I want you to know that “yucky nail polish” really worked for my daughter. Even as a 4-year-old, she asked to have her nails painted nightly. These products are primarily intended to stop nail biting, but many people find they help with thumb and finger sucking, too.  We had to alternate brands, though, because our daughter just became accustomed to the taste after a few days. There are many brands and you may have to find the right one that works for your child or alternate products.  

 

Pros:

  • They are affordable, usually $9-$15 on Amazon.com.  
  • Clear, quick-drying, with little mess.
  • They are an effective reminder for kids who are motivated to quit but need a reminder.  
  • They leave hands-free without obstructions or the annoyance of gloves or finger devices
  • They are private– no one needs to know you are wearing yucky-tasting nail polish.

Cons:

  • Toddlers will suck the polish off or get used to the taste– my 4-year-old tells me she likes the taste, now.  If this happens, try alternating brands.  
  • Adults can get it in our mouths too, by kissing a thumb-sucking toddler or accidentally getting it on our own fingers.  It really tastes bad and the taste sticks with you for a few hours.  
  • Children who are just starting to stop sucking will have lots of moments when they get the yucky taste in their mouth, causing crying and misery that isn’t easily consoled.  
  • Some brands will wash off easily, especially “Thum,” which is the most affordable brand at $6 and available at Walgreens and other major pharmacies.

 

  • Plastic thumb or finger covers: Dr. Thumb, Dr. Finger, and TGuard are the leading brands of plastic thumb or finger covers. They are not cheap, ranging from about $20-$40 each. They are highly rated and most kids can’t get them off.  If you keep them on for about two weeks, your child will have kicked the habit. The problem is that they inhibit hand use, making it hard for kids to play or feed themselves. If your child will suck thumb or fingers on either hand, they will need two devices, rendering them unable to do much for themselves. You will also double your price.  
  • Cloth thumb or finger covers or gloves: Less expensive are several brands of gloves and cloth finger covers such as the ThumbBuster. Mitten Sleeves are a brand of half-shirt that has long sleeves with mittens attached.  These products allow kids to be more active with their hands. Most are easily removed, which is why they seem to be less effective. A safety pin over the velcro closure can make them harder to get off. But if you’re going this far, why not just use socks or regular kids’ stretch gloves safety pinned to shirt sleeves?
  • Ace bandage to the elbow: An ace bandage wrapped at the elbow can make it less comfortable for a child to bend the elbow enough to get fingers in the mouth.  Twisting the ace wrap a few times in the crook of the elbow helps bunch up the fabric there, making it even less comfortable to bend. The ace wrap keeps hands unobstructed and is less annoying than gloves or hand covers. We successfully used an ace wrap together with bad-tasting nail polish. The ace wrap helped remind our daughter not to get the yucky nail polish in her mouth. Without the ace wrap, she had too many nail polish crying episodes. Without the nail polish, though, the ace wrap just wasn’t enough.  Ace wraps are very affordable, about $3-$6 each, and can be worn under clothing. It does take a few tries to learn how to wrap the elbow just right, and kids can get them off easily. It may help to safety pin the ace bandage to make it harder to remove.  
  • Nipit Hand Stopper: This device is basically an improvement on the ace bandage. It prevents the elbow from bending enough to get the fingers or thumb in the mouth.  It is easier to put on and harder to get off than an ace wrap.  Many people find good success with this device alone and don’t need any other techniques. But kids are less functional with the Nipit– they can’t feed themselves, for example. It is also pricey at about $30, available online.  

If you’re stuck and things aren’t working, try to figure out if your child has anxiety that hasn’t been addressed. Continue using praise and positive reinforcement all day, even if your child’s success is only due to a device such as the Nipit or Dr. Thumb. Get all childcare providers on the same page about the plan, and be persistent. This is the first deeply rooted bad habit most kids have to break, and they can’t do it without the loving and persistent support of adults.  

If everything fails and your child is struggling with speech or dental issues, it may be time for an orthodontic device such as a palatal crib or cage. These options are expensive, usually in the thousands of dollars. They can also cause permanent cosmetic changes to the tongue. But… they work.  

What worked for you?  What didn’t?  Please share your story in our comments.  

Comments

  • himalmom

    Have you seen Thumbuddy To Love? Great product to help stop thumb or finger sucking. A good positive reinforcement instead of shaming a child like thumb polish. Check out their website at ThumbuddyToLove.com

  • Ash

    My 11 year old STILL sucks his thumb. He’s had to get braces because if this and he STILL sucks his thumb. I’ve tried wrapping his thumb with tape at night because that’s the only time he does it. I try to talk with him to try to get him to see how important it is that he stops 🙁 but he still does.

  • Rebecca Allyson

    I have a 10 year old that has been sucking her thumb since day 1 and have had no success with every thing except the plate. She has disabilities but I am seriously considering consulting an oral surgeon to wire her jaw shut. Her 2 top front and bottom teeth which are permanent are wiggly. Can this be another alternative?

  • Shelly

    As a kid, I sucked my thumb until I was about 5 years old. I remember my parents trying bitter nail polish, a sock on my hand at night and rewards. None of them worked in the slightest. The nail polish WAS disgusting but I easily powered through the nastiness until it either rubbed off or didn’t bother me as much. My addictive habit was no match for the nasty polish. I pulled the sock right off the second it was put on. And rewards were even less effective than the other two strategies.

    Here’s what DID work. I decided I wanted to quit. And I did, when I was about 5. The strongest driving force behind me quitting was my fear of having permanent teeth grow in crooked (that was my understanding of what would happen) so I decided I was going to quit right about the time I started losing teeth. My grandpa was a dentist and not so suddle about how he couldn’t sit by and watch me ruin my teeth. I guess his comments factored in to my fear of having “crooked teeth” and it’s nit a strategy I recommend but it aid in me stopping. That woyldn’t have been enough alone though… I had to decide I wanted to quit. I am positive that is the only way I ever would have quit. Each child is different and is motivated by something different so you have to find what it is. For me it was fear, hah.

    I have a 5 year old son who sucked his thumb religiously until about six months ago. I told him, and showed him pictures, about how I used to suck my thumb as much as he did. I explained that one day I decided I wanted to quit and I did. I told him I was about the same age as him and if I could do it, so could he. He quit almost cold turkey after I told him. This wouldn’t work with a younger child who you can’t reason with or even possibly a child who doesn’t naturally have a desire to please.

    Such a frustrating thing to see as a parent. I feel for all of you and hope this is helpful to someone in the same situation.

  • Shelly

    Don’t give up, you’re not alone in your struggles and this certainly isn’t an indicator of your success as a parent. Sucking your thumb is not a cognitive choice (or form of disobedience) but an ingrained habit that even determined people have a tough time overcoming. What motivates your daughter? What kinds of things help her to change in other areas of her life? She is old enough to reason with and help her think through the results of sucking her thumb. I really feel it all boils down to her desire to stop, so help her to come to that conclusion on her own. I don’t think any of the other external strategies will work without her desire to change also. Best of luck.

  • Hallie Bulkin

    Google “certified orofacial myologist” and the city you live in or go to http://www.iaom.com and look one up. They will help you to eliminate your daughters thumb sucking in 10-30 days.

  • Hallie Bulkin

    Go to http://www.iaom.com and look a certified orofacial myologist in your area. They will help you to eliminate your childs thumb sucking in 10-30 days.

  • Letthembekids

    Wiring mouths shut? Telling them other kids will laugh at them? Sleepless nights spent crying?? Are you all INSANE???? Kids do a lot of things and eventually grow out of it. How many young people or adults do you see sucking their fingers? You all sound like self obsessed neurotics. You are the problem, not the child. It’s actually frightening.