Thumb Sucking: How My Son Kicked the Habit

Frequent and chronic sucking on thumbs, fingers, or pacifiers can cause traumatic changes to a child's bite. Here's what helped one mom's big kid stop thumb-sucking.

boy sucking his thumb Catherine Delahaye/Getty Images
Ever since my son Ian started sucking his thumb as a baby, I knew that one day he would have to stop. Still, I was in no rush to force the issue. After all, why deprive him of such a natural comfort unless it was totally necessary?

The right time for our boy turned out to be age 8. That’s when he had his first visit to the orthodontist and we learned that frequent and chronic sucking on thumbs, fingers, or pacifiers can cause traumatic changes to his bite. The two most common problems are an open bite and a cross bite. An open bite (when top teeth flare outward and lower teeth lean in) can lead to speech or eating difficulties. A cross bite (when top teeth nestle inside the bottom teeth) may impair jaw development and wear the teeth down, says Robert Delarosa, D.D.S., a pediatric dentist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

Between 10 and 15 percent of 5-year-olds have a finger or thumb-sucking habit, research has found. Take action if your child is 4 1/2 or older and your dentist says he’s showing signs of an impaired bite. “If a child quits thumb-sucking before his permanent teeth come in, the traumatic changes may be reversible,” says Dr. Delarosa. Another benefit, especially in cold and flu season: Keeping your child’s hands out of his mouth could lead to fewer sick days! 

How We Found the Right Strategy

Ian’s orthodontist said that quitting could save Ian (and our bank account) from two extra years of braces. Knowing all this, my son was on board with quitting but doubted he could do it through sheer force of will. The orthodontist offered a surprising solution: Consult with a trusted professional. He referred us to Lonna Montgomery, a former dental hygienist who had developed a niche business visiting children at their home to help them learn to stop sucking their thumb.

Montgomery explained that her goal for the first visit was to make sure Ian didn’t feel coerced. “Why do you think it might be a good idea to stop sucking your thumb?” she asked him gently, as he lay curled up on the sofa.

“Because of braces,” he said. Before she left, Montgomery handed us a list of supplies to gather: an ACE bandage, three large safety pins, and medical tape. We were intrigued.

She returned three days later and spelled out the program: For ten nights, Ian would sleep with the medical tape around his thumb and a bandage gently wrapped around his straightened arm. We’d affix large safety pins on the bandage in three different places—near his wrist, at his elbow pit, and at his biceps—to make it more difficult for him to get his thumb in his mouth. During the day, he only had to have his thumb wrapped. 

Montgomery asked Ian for a tour of his room and quickly found what she was looking for: a large tub of small stuffed animals—63 of them. “These are your triggers, aren’t they?” she asked him. Without prompting, Ian rummaged through the box and divided the animals into two piles: “the regular stuffies” and “the stuffies that always make it feel good to suck my thumb.” I had no idea. 

I later learned from Montgomery that many thumbsuckers have a certain feeling, object, or place that makes them want to suck more. “Beavery feels like this,” Ian told me as he pressed my fingers on the beaver’s ear. “But Chippy feels like this,” he explained, guiding me to feel the chipmunk’s neck. My son also revealed that two of the four fleece blankets on his bed triggered his sucking.

Removing these triggers was the first big step in Montgomery’s technique, and thankfully Ian agreed that all his stuffies and soft blankets would take a vacation. It helped that we promised he would wake up to a funny surprise each morning. (Montgomery left the details to us.) Plus we told Ian that at the end of ten days he would earn a big prize. We offered him $50—$10 of it payable in ten days and the rest three weeks later, when we knew he was over the hump. 

The Final Push

For the first two nights Ian was squirmy and irritable, like a smoker suffering withdrawal. He said the ACE bandage didn’t hurt but was annoying, and I stayed in his bed until he fell asleep. But by the third night, Ian settled down. And he loved his morning surprises: cartoon printouts with notes like “Pikachu misses you!” that were “written” by his vacationing stuffed animals.

For more than a week, the whole family feared leaving Ian alone with his thumb, but by Day 10, he appeared to have dropped the habit.

“Do you think you’ll suck your thumb again?” I asked.

He shrugged. “My saliva doesn’t want it anymore.”

Montgomery wasn’t at all surprised. “Parents say to me, ‘I don’t see how a lifetime habit can be eliminated in only ten nights.’ But kids just lose the taste for that thumb. When they try putting it back in, it feels foreign.” To be safe, Ian decided to continue wearing his nighttime thumb tape for another two months. 

I’ve since asked Ian whether quitting was as hard as he’d feared. 

“Yeah,” he said. “Then how did you manage to do it?” I asked.

“Perseverance,” he said.

Fifty dollars and a few safety pins didn’t hurt either.