How to Stop Thumb Sucking In Older Children

Thumb sucking is a problem in the older child. Parents know that their children need to stop once they get to a certain age. But parents may not know an effective way to make help their children break the habit. After all, it isn’t easy to stop thumb sucking when a child has been doing it for years, ever since he or she was a baby. You may well wonder: why do babies suck their thumbs, anyway? And why is thumb sucking so addictive?

Thumb sucking is a wonderful comfort to babies who need more sucking than they can get from their feedings. It’s also resourceful. A baby doesn’t need an adult to show him how to suck his thumb. It’s something he can figure out on his own. And it’s something he can do to make himself feel better, no adults needed, thank you very much.

Babies do need lots of sucking. But a baby can only suck so much, drink so much milk, from the bottle or breast. When baby’s full, he has to stop feeding or he’ll get a tummy ache.

Thumb sucking, on the other hand, won’t give baby a tummy ache. That’s even if he sucks his thumb for hours on end. Also, unlike say, the pacifier, the thumb is always around. It can’t get dropped or lost. (Maybe that’s why some babies suck on their fingers or thumbs even before they are born.)

That’s all well and good, but at a certain point, kids become too old for the comfort of the thumb. Thumb sucking is literally for babies. Taken too far, the habit can affect a child’s bite (and his social life). The American Academy of Pediatrics says that treatment for dental problems caused by thumb sucking is generally needed only in children who continue to suck their thumbs past the fifth birthday.

The question is: how do you make them stop? How do you get your kid to break the habit and stop sucking his thumb? That is before he wrecks his teeth (and loses all his friends)?

Thumb Sucking and Peer Pressure

First of all, take heart: a lot of children stop sucking their thumbs between the ages of 2-4 just on their own, with no prompting. Past that age, an older child is going to hear about it if he is still sucking his thumb. The other children his age may even refuse to play with him, because his thumb sucking makes him a “baby.” It may seem harsh to us adults, but this is how children learn the social code of their society. They learn how to act around kids their own age through the teasing and insults of their peers.

Such peer pressure should make the older child stop sucking his thumb soon enough. At least during the day when the child is in school or on the playground. The older child may however, still continue to suck his thumb in his sleep, just as he did when  he was a baby. Some older children may manage to stop sucking their thumbs most of the time, but resume the habit when they are under stress.

As the child begins to put limits on his thumb sucking, parents can begin to take heart. The child is gradually moving away from thumb sucking altogether. During this time he will find new ways  to comfort himself.

The Teeth

Thumb sucking usually doesn’t cause problems with a child’s bite until the permanent teeth are in. At this point, thumb sucking can change the shape of the roof of the mouth (the palate). Thumb sucking after the permanent teeth are in can also affect the way the teeth line up inside the mouth (alignment). It should be noted that very vigorous thumb sucking can also affect a child’s baby teeth. A child who is still sucking his thumb at age 5 should be seen by the dentist.

Here are some tips to help the child over four years of age break the thumb sucking habit:

Have a conversation about thumb sucking. . . Explain to your child that thumb sucking can affect the bite and may also cause the kids to make fun of him. Ask your child how he feels about that. Does he want to stop sucking his thumb? What can he do instead of thumb sucking, when the urge to put his thumb in his mouth comes on?

. . .then ignore it. Some kids suck their thumbs to get attention. They want to see what you will do. They want to see if you’ll get angry at them. Or if you’ll sit down and have a nice long chat about thumb sucking, which is also a form of attention.

Arrange a chat with the dentist. Having the dentist talk to your child about how thumb sucking can hurt his bite may have more of an impact on your child than a talk with you. The dentist wears a white coat and seems important. Your child may accept the advice he stop thumb sucking from the dentist. The dentist may also be able to fit your child for a mouth guard to help prevent thumb sucking.

Do something nice when they try hard. If your child takes steps to stop the thumb sucking, show your child you’ve noticed. Take your child for a walk, or read his favorite book to him in the middle of the day (instead of waiting for bedtime). Let your child mark each day he succeeds in not sucking his thumb on a calendar you provide for this purpose.

Offer a substitute for times of stress. Does your child sucks his thumb when he’s upset or stressed out? Try a cuddle or comforting words. You can bring your child a stuffed animal or a pillow and suggest he give it a squeeze.

Remind him oh-so-gently. If your child forgets and begins to suck his thumb, suggest he stop in as gentle a tone and words as you can muster. Don’t insult him or make him feel bad about this lapse. If it happens in public, wait until you get home to say something. At home, you can suggest the two of you have a special signal for when that happens (for instance: blink three times, tug on an ear, touch the tip of your nose).

Make thumb sucking unpleasant. Remember Violet from the Peanuts cartoons? Her Italian grandma put chili pepper on the children’s thumbs to get them to stop their thumb sucking. You can try applying vinegar, which makes the thumb taste different without being too spicy. Or you can try putting a bandage on the thumb.

Patience is a virtue. Finally, remember that thumb sucking is a habit and a hard one to break. It’s more difficult to stop thumb sucking than to stop using a pacifier. With the pacifier there is only oral sensation. With thumb sucking there are two sensations: the feeling in the mouth and the feeling in the thumb. That makes a thumb sucking habit doubly difficult to break.

When you feel like nothing is going to make your child quit sucking his thumb, take a deep breath and compose yourself. Getting upset and putting pressure on your child is not going to get him to stop sucking his thumb. In fact, such behavior may even delay your child’s progress. Besides, once your child goes to school, it’s almost certain peer pressure will do what you could not. The other kids will, with their teasing, get him to stop the thumb sucking, for good.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

Reader Interactions


  1. Mom says

    thanks for making me relax. I will not get angry now by seeing my child sucking the Fingers instead I will try to engage him in new play activities

  2. Ali Marshall says

    Your advice is wonderful for an apparently normal family situation but just imagine the compounded effect of peer bullying on top of instability & insecurity in the home. I am that child & I suggest every compassionate attempt be made for the child before allowing said child to be bullied into conformity. IT DOESNT WORK

    • Varda Epstein says

      Um. Who said anything about bullying a child into conformity? This piece doesn’t suggest anything like that.

  3. Aline says

    I would like to know how, at age 10, to get my daughter to stop sucking her thumb. Apparently no teasing or peer pressure at school to work on her. Just at home. Now a sudden development of a lisp. I’m thinking dental device but braces are soon to come anyway.

      • Varda Epstein says

        If you’ve tried all the tips here, I’d leave it alone. It’s likely that peer pressure will eventually work its magic.

  4. Randi says

    There are guards that orthodontist can install to help stop thumb sucking. We have tried all these tips and even the teasing at school doesn’t seem to phase her. She doesn’t care much what other students think and she runs with the same friends since 1st grade… Orthodontist is our next step, this was recommended to us by her dentist

    • Varda Epstein says

      You don’t mention your daughter’s age, so it’s difficult to offer advice, if that is what you seek. The orthodontist should be able to explain to her that she is damaging her health. And certainly your daughter will reach an age where she is no longer comfortable doing something babyish in front of her peers.

    • Naelynn says

      Hey, if you figuring me out please tell me because my parents have tried everything for me to and I’m 13, I still do it, but I only do when I get tired or bored

  5. Mar Metoh says

    I am twelve and I’m in 7th grade. I’ve been sucking my thumb since I was like 2ish and I can’t stop. I would really like to because this one boy is really mean about it. My friends try to help me but it doesn’t work. My parents don’t even know about it.

    • Varda Epstein says

      How don’t your parents know about it? Are they vision-impaired? Your friends can’t help with this. The only one who can deal with this problem is you. If you resolve to quit, you’ll quit. You’ll paint your thumb with bitter substances, catch yourself in the act and stop, chew gum, do something else, anything but suck your thumb. You can do this. Of course you can.

    • Emilie says

      Girl I feel you I’m in 7th grade too and I’m scared to tell my friends about it but I really want to stop too

  6. Marie Hibbs says

    i am 12 years young and i still suck my thumb. i have started to write in a notebook like a diary. i tell my diary what i did/ or should do to stop sucking my thumb permanently. i have started to hug a pillow at night instead of sucking my thumb. i suggest doing what i do to help YOUR child/children to stop sucking his/her thumb permanently.

  7. Roxie says

    My child’s lips have grow slightly out and the teeth on the top are not aligned. I’ll be getting brace for the teeth but what can I do for the lips?

    • Varda Epstein says

      Roxie, I think that once you correct your daughter’s bite, her lip will look good, too.

  8. In need of help says

    I’ve tried multiple substances on my thumb to rid myself of this habit but none of it works, I only suck my thumb at night to fall asleep, suggestions?

    • Varda Epstein says

      Try dipping your thumb in vinegar or Tabasco sauce before you go to sleep.

  9. Sofia says

    I’m 11 I’m in year 7 I don’t do it at school but to get to sleep I do I would usually suck my thumb and rub a label but if I rub a label it makes me want to suck my thumb I can stop my self but it’s hard once I start I need help coz I’m at a new school and I don’t want anyone to know

  10. Sophia says

    Me too I’m scared on what they’d might say so I keep it to my self.its hard to stop I’m 11 and I’ve did did it since I was a baby

  11. Bob thomas says

    I suck my thumb and I’m 14, that’s right . (Bob Thomas isn’t my real name). Some kids have the brains not to do it in front of friends but subconsciously at home it slips in(that’s what she said). The BEST ADVICE IS TO BRING IT UP CONSTANTLY! don’t let your child forget, this is ONLY FOR EXTREME cases (9 years old and up). What this woman is saying is partially true but peer pressure does sod all if your peers can’t pressure. Vivian is basically saying that “Oh… you’ve failed… leave it up to his/her friends then! 🙂 ” . Sometimes i feel really dumb when my family points it out and i won’t do it for the rest of the day or week- IT WORKS. I hope this first hand experience has helped. Go stop that addiction before your child becomes like me, do it for their sake, PLEASE

  12. Kylie says

    Hi to get my 11 year old to stop sucking her thumb I have tried everything pleas help.

  13. Alexa Nunez says

    hi i’m 13 and I only suck my thumb when I am board. anxious, crying and sleeping is their any suggestions that you might have to help me stop i’ve tried everything and wanted to know if you could give me any suggestions

  14. lolo lala says

    as someone who sucks on their thumb I can tell that most of this info is bullshit… bullying will def not be helpful and why you gotta be so critical on children , i only feel bad about doing it bc society tells me so but honestly it makes me feel so calm like nothing else does and I do not have any dental problems and I mean if ppl feel anxious anout others knowing – you should practice sleeping without sucking on your thimb from time to time kust in case

  15. darp_ says

    hi, darp isn’t my real name, i’m a soon to be 13 yr old boy and i’ve been sucking my thumb for as long as I can remember. my mom has tried almost everything but none of the things she’s tried worked. i only do it when i’m bored, sleeping or my hands aren’t busy. I’m at the point where i feel sorry for myself, but I just can’t stop. Can you please give me some advice.

    • Varda Epstein says

      If you’re bored, find something to do. If you do it when you’re sleeping, who will know or care, including you??? Try the advice in the article and see if anything helps.

  16. grace_parlimentt says

    my 5 year old brother keeps sucking his finger and won’t stop no matter how much I tell him to. he also makes sucking noises just to irritate me. i cant handle it and almost slapped him across the face. what do i do to make him stop this disgusting habit. (he gets teased and called a baby a lot.)

    FYI i am the big sister.