Thumb-Sucking in Children: Care Instructions

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Thumb-sucking is normal in babies and young children. They have a natural urge to suck that starts in their first few months of life or even before birth. Babies may also suck on their fingers or hands, or items such as pacifiers.

Many babies suck their thumbs to soothe themselves. Thumb-sucking can become a habit when it's used for comfort. They may comfort themselves when they feel hungry, afraid, restless, or sleepy.

Most children who suck their thumbs stop on their own between ages 3 and 6 years old. Long-term thumb-sucking (after age 4 or 5) 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.

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 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 their 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 activities they can do with their hands to distract them.
  • 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

  • Calmly 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 as a reminder to not thumb-suck.
  • Use a reward system, such as putting stickers on a calendar to record each day that your child does not suck their thumb. After an agreed-upon number of days, celebrate your child's success.
  • Ask your doctor about using a nontoxic, bitter-tasting nail coating that makes your child's thumb taste bad. Follow the instructions carefully. 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 they are 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 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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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.