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.
Babies have a natural urge to suck, which usually decreases after the age of 6 months. But many babies continue to suck their thumbs to soothe themselves. Thumb-sucking can become a habit in babies and young children who use it to comfort themselves when they feel hungry, afraid, restless, quiet, sleepy, or bored.
Most children stop thumb sucking on their own between ages 3 and 6 years.
Prolonged thumb-sucking may cause a child to develop dental problems. Thumb-sucking can cause a child's teeth to become improperly aligned or push the teeth outward, sometimes disrupting the roof of the mouth. Most of these problems usually correct themselves when the child stops thumb-sucking. However, the longer thumb-sucking continues, the more likely it is that dental treatment will be needed to correct any resulting dental problems.
A child may also develop speech problems, including mispronouncing Ts and Ds, lisping, and thrusting out the tongue when talking.
Thumb-sucking in children younger than 4 is usually not a problem. Many experts recommend ignoring thumb-sucking in a child who is preschool age or younger. Most young children stop sucking their thumbs on their own.
Children who suck their thumbs frequently or with great intensity after the age of 4 or 5 or those who continue to suck their thumbs after age 5 are at risk for dental or speech problems and may need treatment.
Usually, treatment can be done at home and includes parents setting rules and providing distractions. It may be helpful to limit the times and places that your child is allowed to suck his or her thumb and to put away blankets or other items your child associates with thumb-sucking. Offering praise and rewards for not thumb-sucking may also help your child break the habit.
• Talk to your child openly about the 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.
• Develop a reward system, such as putting stickers on a calendar or otherwise recording each day that your child does not suck his or her thumb. After an agreed-upon number of days, have a celebration for your child.
Use a special nontoxic, bitter-tasting nail coating. Apply it like fingernail polish to the thumbnail 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.