How to Stop Thumb Sucking & Tips on Pacifier Weaning

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Toddler sucking thumb

Usually babies fall into one of two camps: Thumb/finger suckers or pacifier users. But if you have a toddler or preschooler, you’re probably starting to hear it’s time to end the habit. Sounds horrible, right? Jenna Murray, DO, UnityPoint Health, gives us some advice to make the process easier for you.

What’s the Sucking About?

“Infants are born with the need to suck, Dr. Murray says. “The sucking reflex is vital for nutrition. The majority of infants tend to engage in non-nutritive sucking via either pacifiers or their own digits.”

You should not prevent your baby from sucking on either a thumb or pacifier. Sucking is typically soothing and calming for infants. It can be an early step in an infant’s ability to self-regulate emotions.

Dr. Murray also says some studies demonstrate a reduction in SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) when a pacifier is offered at naps or bedtime. 

What are the Effects of Thumb Suck and Pacifier Use?

A prolonged thumb sucking and pacifier habit may affect the shape of a child’s mouth or how his/her permanent teeth line up. The effects are directly related to the frequency, intensity, duration and nature of the habit. If the sucking habit stops before upper adult teeth come through, the bite may correct itself. If adult teeth push through, it may require orthodontic evaluation and management.

What Age Should Thumb Sucking and Pacifier Use Stop?

Your dentist will likely start pushing you to end sucking habits around the age of 2. But, the American Academy of Pediatrics says age 4 is an appropriate goal. Dr. Murray says closer to age 3 or 4 is probably OK.

“The parent should get a feel for how much the child will understand, communicate and be receptive to change, which tends to increase with age. However, if the nature of the habit seems severe, it might be best to address the behavior earlier,” Dr. Murray says.

Pacifier Weaning

So, you’ve decided it’s time to start pacifier weaning. The good news – Dr. Murray says pacifier users typically discontinue the habit earlier than thumb suckers. Here are four unique ways to get rid of those binkies.

  • Cut the nipple or poke a hole in it. The child likely won’t get the same sucking sensation encouraging him/her to drop the habit.
  • Give the pacifier away. Your child might want to be a big boy or girl and give their pacifier to another baby. This is a symbolic way of letting go and getting it out of your home.
  • Sow it into a stuffed animal. Try putting the pacifier into a stuff animal. This way your child will feel the comfort of knowing it’s still there but can’t use it.
  • Lose the pacifier. You could simply tell your child you misplaced the pacifier. Dr. Murray says a lot of parents tell her they really did lose the pacifiers, which is a great incident that breaks the habit.

How to Stop Thumb Sucking

Unfortunately, thumb/finger sucking is typically a harder habit to break for obvious reasons – it’s attached. Here are some tips for how to stop thumb sucking.

  • Praise, praise, praise. Avoid telling your child not to suck his/her thumb. Instead, focus on positive reinforcement when you catch them trying to stop sucking.
  • Small, non-food awards. Keep track of thumb sucking frequency and reward decreases in that frequency. An example could be offering your child a special teddy bear that he/she can have only when they don’t suck their thumb.
  • Sticker charts. Like potty training, this can be a valuable method to stop a thumb sucking habit. Let the child add a sticker when he/she gets through a certain amount of time without thumb sucking.
  • Keep his/her hands busy. Thumb sucking is often a result of boredom. Try keeping your child’s hands busy or keep them distracted to prevent thumb sucking.
  • Palatal crib or rake. These devices are put in by an orthodontist and should be considered a last resort. The AAP says if you use these, make it clear to you child it’s simply a reminder not to suck on thumbs/fingers and not a punishment. The devices are usually only in place for about three months.

“Whatever method you choose to help your child end his/her habit, it’s a good idea to get it under control before getting too far into the school years. Older children who suck thumbs or fingers might be subject to social stigma or ridiculed, which may negatively affect self-esteem,” Dr. Murray says.