Many children have the natural habit of thumb-sucking. The cause of it varies by child, but for most, it could be anything, including being bored, tired, hungry, or stressed. 

Research by noted pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton demonstrated that 6 percent of babies continue thumb-sucking past age 1, and 3 percent continue beyond age 2. Furthermore, 15 percent of toddlers are found to continue the habit past age 4.

The damage? According to the American Dental Association, thumb-sucking that persists once  permanent teeth arrive can  cause improper growth of the mouth, unaligned teeth, and changes to the roof of the mouth—all things you will pay for down the road. Big time.

Advice for Kids Under 5 

With children under 5 years of age, parents can ignore the thumb-sucking, especially if it’s a response to being sick, tired, or stressed. But if the child is sucking out of boredom, a parent needs to step in and distract their child by giving their hands something else to do. 

How to Handle Older Children

When children have reached 5-years-old, parents need to explain how the thumb-sucking will ruin their nice teeth—show them in the mirror. Also show how they will end up with boo-boos on their thumbs, such as calluses. 

Practice Positivity 

Positive reinforcement is a great way to break the thumb-sucking habit. Use praise when you notice the child isn’t doing it like they used to, especially during stressful or difficult times. This way, the child builds confidence. The sucking often continues when they are insecure. Tracking the trigger, comforting the child, and eliminating those stressors can really push the process forward. 

Use Understanding

Offering rewards, a substitute, or physically bandaging the thumbs are all common ways to help a child understand that they can’t suck their thumbs forever. Be understanding of the possible triggers and don’t use negative reinforcements such as screaming, yelling, or punishments to break the habit—this may actually intensify the thumb-sucking.

If you’ve exhausted all of the options, it is important to see your healthcare provider or pediatrician. 

Jennie Russo is a freelance writer from Morris County, New Jersey.