Discover why your child sucks her thumb -- and what you should and shouldn't do about this toddler habit.
child sucking thumb
Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

We all have our ways to relax. While yours might be reading a good book or soaking in a warm bath, young kids have different ways of unwinding. Many turn to a trusted blankie or stuffed animal for comfort; others rely on their good ol' thumb. You may smile to see your cute rosy-cheeked baby nibbling on her thumb, but it can cause a worried frown once the infant stage passes. If you have a toddler who's still fond of sucking on her thumb, you may have a lot of questions: What's so appealing about that wrinkly digit? Will she have problems with her teeth? How can I get her to stop?

Generally, there are a couple of reasons children suck their thumbs. Many little ones pick it up when they're trying to find a substitute for sucking on a bottle. Because sucking on a bottle yields milk, which tastes good and makes them feel good, they suck on their thumbs when they're off the bottle because they associate it with feeling good and feeling comfort, says Daniel Coury, M.D., chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. And once a kids begins thumb-sucking, it may be a difficult habit to quit; they get so used to sucking their thumb while watching TV or sitting quietly or falling asleep that they can't stop. Prolonged thumb-sucking may push the teeth outward or cause misalignment. It can also lead to speech problems, such as lisping. If you're concerned about your toddler's thumb-sucking, here are some strategies for dealing with this temporary habit.

Don't Force Thumb-Sucking to Stop

As long as your child is developing normal language skills at the appropriate time, doctors usually tell parents not to worry about thumb-sucking during the first few years of life, says Stan Spinner, M.D., the chief medical officer at Texas Children's Pediatrics in Houston. Kids usually give up sucking on their thumb around age 5 or 6. As long as your child still doesn't have the habit by the time her permanent teeth grow in, which is right around that age, there's little reason to worry the thumb-sucking will damage her teeth. If she does still suck her thumb, consult her dentist or pediatrician.

Skip the "Fixes"

If you do decide to end your kid's love affair with his thumb, don't bother with "remedies" such as putting vinegar or other bitter-tasting liquids on the thumb, which may make the child feel like he's being punished. Avoid using topical aids found at the pharmacy, which can be ineffective and possibly harmful, Dr. Spinner says. During the early years of your child's life, avoid dental appliances (for example, a fixed palatial crib, also known simply as a "crib") because they could cause injury to the skin. Usually kids stop sucking their thumbs on their own.

Avoid Stressful Times

If there have been some big changes at home, like the arrival of a new sibling or a move to a new house or neighborhood, don't put a rein on the thumb-sucking. At a time when your child is experiencing elevated stress or anxiety, trying to introduce another change, like weaning her off thumb-sucking, may be met with resistance and be more difficult. Your toddler may cling to her thumb even more as a source of comfort. Instead, choose a time that isn't significantly stressful for you or your child. A good time to start weaning is during preschool, because seeing classmates who don't suck their thumbs may give your kid more motivation to kick the habit. If your child has been through a recent stressful event, wait at least a few months before trying to stop her reliance on her thumb.

Keep Idle Hands Busy

Boredom might not only cause your child to twiddle his thumbs, it could also cause him to suck his thumb. But "your child can't suck on his thumb if he's occupied with an activity that involves both hands," Dr. Coury says. Doing arts and crafts projects, playing hand games, having him turn pages in a book, and other hands-on activities can keep his thumb away from his mouth.

Pick Up a Lovey

Thumb-sucking is usually a child's way of self-soothing, so an alternative is to give him a transitional object, or lovey, such as a blanket or small stuffed toy. This can provide the temporary comfort that he's seeking, Dr. Coury says. Although this means your tot may become too attached to a lovey, the good news is that giving up a lovey later will be easier than getting rid of the thumb dependency.

Use Positive Reinforcement

Don't embarrass or bug your child every time you see her thumb inching toward her mouth. The bigger the deal you make of it, the more she may be driven to rely on it. Instead, focus more on when she's not sucking her thumb. Praise her ("Mommy's so proud of you. You took a nap without sucking your thumb") and offer small rewards for her efforts. Keeping a sticker chart or a "thumbprint calendar" (dip your child's thumb in food dye and let her mark each thumb-free day) might be a good incentive to help her ditch the habit.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.