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Thumb-Sucking in Children: Care Instructions

Your Care Instructions

Thumb-sucking is normal in babies and young children. A natural sucking instinct leads some babies to suck their thumbs during their first few months of life or even before birth. Babies may also suck on their fingers, hands, or items such as pacifiers. Most babies who suck their thumbs stop on their own between ages 3 and 6 years old.

Long-term thumb-sucking may cause dental problems. It can make a child's teeth uneven or push the teeth outward and can affect the roof of the mouth. Thumb-sucking also may cause speech problems, including lisping and thrusting out the tongue when talking. Children who suck their thumbs often after the age of 4 or 5 are at risk for these problems.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

How can you care for your child at home?

Home treatment to help a child stop sucking his or her thumb usually is not tried until age 4. Even then, most doctors recommend treatment only if the thumb-sucking is frequent or intense. Below are some steps you can take when your child is around age 4, and some stronger measures for when your child can take a more active role in quitting.

Early steps

  • Give your child more attention and distract him or her with fun activities.
  • Limit the places and times for thumb-sucking. For example, ask your child to do it only while in his or her bedroom.
  • Put away items such as blankets that your child associates with thumb-sucking. At first, put the items away for short periods of time throughout the day. As your child learns other ways of self-comfort, gradually increase the amount of time these items are not available.

Later steps

  • Talk to your child about the harmful effects of thumb-sucking.
  • Put gloves on your child's hands or wrap the thumb with an adhesive bandage or a cloth. Explain that the glove, bandage, or cloth is not a punishment but is only there to remind him or her not to thumb-suck.
  • Use a reward system, such as putting stickers on a calendar to record each day that your child does not suck his or her thumb. After an agreed-upon number of days, celebrate your child's success.
  • Use a special non-toxic, bitter-tasting nail coating. Apply it like fingernail polish to the thumbnail (or fingernail) each morning, before bed, and whenever you see your child sucking his or her thumb. This treatment is most successful when it is combined with a reward system.

Things to remember

  • Do not remove the thumb from the child's mouth while he or she is awake. You can remove it after the child is asleep.
  • Stay neutral and calm when talking about your child's thumb-sucking habit. Do not punish or shame your child for thumb-sucking.
  • Do not allow other people to make fun of your child.

When should you call for help?

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • Home treatment has not helped your child stop thumb-sucking.
  • You feel frustrated about your child's thumb-sucking.
  • You are worried that thumb-sucking is causing problems for your child. These may include speech problems, teeth problems, or problems with the roof of the mouth.

Where can you learn more?

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.