10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know about Thumb Sucking

“My 6 year old daughter just won’t stop sucking her thumb.” a friend tells me with concern.

I’ve heard those words many times before. In fact, in my sensory support group, it gets asked at least once a month by some concerned parent trying to get to the bottom of it. Usually I am not the first resort, most of the time they have already done their research, asked the doctor, and tried several things without much luck.

I usually stay out of the conversations because there really is so much more to the answer than just a quick sentence or two as a response. In fact, I think there are some things that every parent needs to know about thumb sucking that you might not read anywhere else.

What you really need to know about thumb Sucking

While my children have never sucked their thumbs, I have had my share of children in my life that did. When I was in the classroom, it never failed, every single year I would have a child that would have difficulty getting work done because it’s incredibly difficult to hold a pencil and suck a thumb at the same time. Then in the last two years, I have met so many parents and caregivers that have such true concern about their child’s thumb sucking.

In fact, one of our most popular items on our sister site, Project Sensory, is chewable jewelry, which is aimed at helping children with oral sensory needs. Yet, for some reason, I have always steered clear of writing about the topic. However, today my friend encouraged me to write about what I know and hopefully it can shed some light on your struggles with thumb sucking.

My Child Won't Stop Thumb Sucking

Ten Things Every Parent Should Know About Thumb Sucking

  1. It’s not about you! Let go of that guilt. Go… Let it fly out the window. It’s not because you didn’t wean in time, or you weaned to early. It’s not because your baby was bottle fed instead of breastfed, or breast fed instead of bottle fed. It’s not because you let it go too long. Just stop. Let the guilt fly away!
  2. It’s a need! You read that right, its a need. What need exactly is to be determined still. You see, I haven’t asked you questions yet. I don’t know about your child’s past and their habits. There is no way I can tell you right this second why your child is sucking their thumb. It could be sensory related, habitual, or even anxiety induced.
  3. It’s complicated! Don’t expect to get to the bottom of thumb sucking in one day, one strategy or one chewable jewelry. This is going to be a process and when you prepare yourself for that, you will be in a better place and ready to attack the issue head on.
  4. Discipline has nothing to do with it! No matter how many times you take something away, put them in time out, or tap their little hands, you are not going to stop the thumb sucking. In fact, you are only going to scare them into no doing around you. Whatever that need was that they were trying to fill is still there and they will find a way to soothe it somehow.
  5. It’s a good sign of self regulation! Congratulations! You have a child that knows how to soothe themselves when they need it. This is huge! Believe me, I wish my child could self soothe or regulate his own emotions, but he can’t. That is why he was never a thumb sucker.
  6. It can be a sign! I want to challenge you to watch your child for me. When my friend reached out I asked her to tell me about her child’s behaviors. When does she suck her thumb? Are there times its worse? By pinpointing the times it is at its worst its easy to see she uses thumb sucking to self regulate when she is nervous, afraid, or overwhelmed! Remember, this is great that she can do that!
  7. It can be habitual! How long has your child done this? Is it a new development or something they have done since they were a newborn? If the answer is that they’ve done it as long as you can remember, then it is engrained in their working memory as a tool they have to use. This isn’t a bad thing, it just needs to be brought to their attention and alternatives need to be provided.
  8. It is developmental! Thumb sucking by nature is not a negative thing. I am sure you can remember whether your baby did it in utero or not. However, as children age and get taller, it is expected socially of them to replace thumb sucking with something more “big girl or boy”. However, as with many behaviors children have at a young age, this is a developmental continuum that varies by child.
  9. There are alternatives! Good news! There are a lot of great tools out there you can provide your child that will help them with this
  10. Even adults suck their thumbs. I have to say, when I first wrote this, I wrote “I don’t know an adult that sucks their thumb. I know it might sound silly, but just as we all worry our kids will never get out of diapers, sleep through the night, or learn to ride a bike… they do. “But, I was quickly reminded that many adults do still suck their thumbs and they do it as a soothing mechanism or as oral input. They just happen to be a bit more discreet because they are aware of “social norms for adults.” The point is to say.. this is normal. It is okay.This is something you can help your child through and you will make it through this adventure alive!

I could go on and on about thumb sucking. In fact, while I was on the phone with my friend we talked for quite some time about the ins and outs of thumb sucking with her child. I told her the same thing I am telling you. I am not an expert in the medical or psychiatric field. However, I have years of experience as an educator, parent and support system. I am simply sharing what I have learned and hopefully it will be of some use to you! While it would be easier if we could hop on the phone, that might not be the most efficient way to help you. For now, I will write these posts and try to answer any questions you have! If I don’t have an answer, maybe I can find one for us.

To learn more about Sensory Processing and find some great oral sensory activities, you can learn more in our book, Sensory Processing 101!

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28 thoughts on “10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know about Thumb Sucking”

  1. Bella

    I read your article with interest.
    I was a thumb sucker and so is my son, infact I even have scan photos of him sucking his thumb in the womb so you are right it isn’t about weaning too early or too late or bottles etc.
    I think that for me (and I know for my son) thumb sucking was linked to smell as this is one of the biggest memory triggers it was about sensory stimulus. I could ‘smell’ sleep whilst sucking my thumb and I know that I felt relaxed and went to sleep more quickly sucking my thumb. I had a happy childhood and loving parents so it wasn’t about self soothing etc, it just smelled nice!
    I am not concerned about my son’s thumb sucking but it seems that the world is. I was in a supermarket and the elderly lady actually took my boys thumb out and said ‘how dirty’ !! I swiftly replaced his thumb and told her that her opinion was not needed.
    I ‘grew out’ of sucking my thumb when I was 10, I found I didn’t need it to get me to sleep, so I am in no hurry to stop my son.
    I think that you rightly give no opinion but lots of encouragement to just ‘let it be’. The bottom line is that there are far bigger things to worry about in life and if your only worry is that your child sucks their thumb then you have a charmed life. Relax and don’t let it be an issue.

    1. Nicely said! My daughter was a big thumb sucker and we just smiled and let her do her thing. She seemed to do it while she stroked/twisted her hair—when she was thinking, observing or just relaxing. We never used a pacifier and she enjoyed it until it went away naturally.

    2. Ann-Marie Perri

      Why does my son only suck his thumb around me? He says he likes sucking it around me. When he is with grandparents for example he doesn’t. He is three years old.

  2. Amber Krofta

    Thanks for posting this. My 3 year old has been a thumb sucker since infancy and we just kinda let her do her thing because its what worked for her. But now that she is 3, my husband and I have been wondering if we should wean her. We talked to the Dentist and her Ped.- both said most children self wean between 3 & 4. However, after reading this– I think the best route for us is to get to the bottom of why she sucks and when. I read through some sensory processing articles and checklist- and i think that isn’t a issue for her. Any insight or direction would be appreciated 🙂 Thanks!

    1. Lemon Lime Adventures

      I am never an advocate of “stopping the thumb sucking” rather understanding it. I agree getting to the bottom of the reasons will be super helpful!

      1. Momma2three

        WELL here’s a good reason to nip it in the bud. Our daughter’s friend has been sucking her thumb all her life, she’s now eight and a half. In addition to a speech impediment, at a recent party I noticed her lower jaw is receding. It actually looks malformed. Like the bone didn’t develop. Her jawline looks like neither one of her parents. Another dad at the party, actually a plastic surgeon, commented to me that she has absolutely impacted the shape of her soft palate, teeth, and bone structure. Should be a candidate for plastic surgery to correct this someday.

    2. Dee in SC

      Most children who suck their thumb or fingers also have a tactile partner, like a blanket or stuffed animal. Both of my children were finger suckers, and their tactile friends were body parts like hair, nose, and ear lobes. If you can take away the tactile friend, your problems will almost always be quickly resolved. Good luck!

  3. Mel

    I wondered if you had any advice/comments on pacifier use? Specifically for preschool age. Do the same things in this article apply?

    1. Lemon Lime Adventures

      I think many of the same truths apply! Honestly the biggest problem with the pacifier is the social stigmas. For that, I woud encourage “appropriate” tools such as chewelry or pencil toppers.

  4. I was wondering what your thoughts are concerning the use of a pacifier? Many parents seem to think that a ‘dummy’ is better than a thumb—teeth concerns and such.

    1. Lemon Lime Adventures

      From all the research I have done I have seen that this is preferential for the child. Both are soothing mechanism and neither one is worse or better than the other. (if that makes sense)

    2. Leanne

      Its better in a way its alot easier to get rid of soother the thumb is attached but you can at an earlier stage wean from the soother and in all fairness some dentists actually recommend thumb sucking stop because my stepson has bad plaque buildup form bacteria from thumb sucking so they have concerns as well that the jaw will stay in the position and will need braces so in some cases this is ok but in his he has to stop or end up loosing all his teeth from the plaque causing cavities each child is different

  5. Heidi

    I sucked my thumb as a child to self soothe. It was very relaxing and addicting. My parents tried everything to stop it. It didn’t work. I had an over-bite as a result, almost a perfect fit for my thumb. I think it was an aunt that told me this could happen and that encouraged me to stop. Just an fyi.

  6. Helen

    Hi. I found your post very interesting as a have a very determined finger sucker and her dentist is concerned about the impact on her mouth and teeth. You mention in points 7 and 9 that there are alternatives to thumb sucking. Can you give some examples?

    1. Lydia Scantlebury

      I was told the same thing about my son – that hemis ruining his teeth and that he needs to quit by age 3-4 or risk ruining his adult teeth as well. That part stresses me out.

      1. Lemon Lime Adventures

        Many dentists and orthodontists have said that while it is completely true that it can cause changes to the mouth structure, it is also more important to supply your child with the appropriate input they need!

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  8. erickajen

    im not a thumb sucker, but im a life long hair twirler. despite my moms attempt to make me stop (due to twisting it at night and getting hair stuck around my finger …. and resulting in a dorothy hamill haircut ….) i still do it. its comforting. 🙂 i like it. lol

  9. Sally

    I am a 33yo thumb sucker. Granted it’s not something that I do very often anymore and I’m not usually conscious of it when I do. I don’t really know all the ins and outs of why I did it as a kid, these days it tends to be when I’m excessively tired and my brain won’t shut off.
    As a kid my parents didn’t stress to much although they tried to encourage alternate behaviour. As a teen they gave me a little stick about it as did my sister but I still kept marching along to the beat of my own drum.
    It has never affected my teeth but my right thumb is a tiny tiny bit smaller than my left.

  10. Jade

    Thanks for writing this! I feel compelled to share my experiences as a thumb sucker, & how I wish the adults in my life would’ve handled it. I actually sat twisting my hair & sucking my thumb as I read the article, & as I sit back to proofread what I’m writing, my thumb instinctively goes into my mouth. It helps me through all my mental processes, especially as a “gifted” person (I’ve read that this completes a “circuit” for some people). I think the first questions to ask before making a child feel like something is wrong with them is, “Is there really a problem? Are they causing any harm?” I was never one to let it distract me from or interrupt my work in school. I simply wanted to put my head down when I was done, & suck my thumb. I remember my parents putting hot sauce on my thumb, band-aids, & numbing agents from the doctor. My 3rd grade teacher made me grow the germs off my thumb so I could see how dirty it was, which made me start washing my hand before I sucked my thumb. Why was it so important to them for me to stop? It has never affected my teeth, and the only thing I ever got out of all that was being ashamed of sucking my thumb. I’m not asking for anyone to analyze my behavior, and get to the bottom of it. I just wanted them to let me be.

  11. Angiford

    My sister sucked her thumb until she was 16, and she has about the most perfect teeth I have ever seen, never needed braces. My daughter also sucks her thumb, and eventually she will grow out of it, I am sure.

  12. Jennifer

    I also read this article with great interest. We were recently told my daughter’s dentist that we have to stop her thumb sucking. She’s 2 1/2 and only sucks her thumb when she’s tired or watching TV. Would love to hear what you think. Thx

    1. Lemon Lime Adventures

      It sounds like she is using it as a soothing and calming tool. Have you tried replacing the behavior with another item such as chewable jewelry?

  13. Many kids suck their thumb to mobilize their vomer, the bone that is perpendicular to their palate (maxillae). Craniosacral therapy can help mobilize the cranial bones that are impacted and help normalize structure, function, sensory feedback.

  14. I have twin boys, age 4, and both suck their thumb. It is really weird. The pedo siad they need to quit thumb sucking immediately because it is starting to affect John’s speech. I found several product reviews but cannot tell which are real, from the website stopthumbsucking.org, which recommends a couple top products. Any help from other parents as to devices they used to help their kids quit? I am hoping to be successful first try. The website recommends Nipit hand stopper, and I want to try just once and get it right the first time. too tired to try twice 🙂

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  16. I’m a 32year old thumb sucker! Yes unfortunately it doesn’t come without its effects, such as unstraighted teeth -i hate this the most!. However, I just can not seem to stop myself. I suck my thumb and play with my ear – only when it is cold. The colder the better!! When I was little my mum tried everything to stop me from doing it, but it’s attached it was impossible. If I couldn’t sleep I would wet my ears to make them cold and this would sooth me – I know strange right! Iv recently started looking into sensory processing and I also struggled with pica (didn’t realise at the time) pregnancy brought it back with avengence! A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with OCD and generalised anxiety disorder which I guess in some form sits part in parcel with one another. I don’t ever remember struggling as a child in all honesty, so never worry that your bad parents at all, every person is unique and children will always find a way if you resist. Go with it!

  17. Pingback: The Big Debate on the Thumb Sucking Habit | Being A Thinkaholic

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