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Thumb-sucking and soothers

Find out why your child sucks their thumb or a soother, the effects this has on their development, and how to encourage them to stop.

Some small children suck their thumb because they find it soothing. They may develop this habit around 18 months.

Children usually stop thumb-sucking by 4 years old. Thumb-sucking is only a problem if it continues beyond this age. The sucking may affect the shape of your child's permanent front teeth.

Reasons for sucking a thumb or a soother

Sucking a thumb or a soother can help your child cope with emotional issues. This could be a new baby in the family, going into hospital or starting pre-school.

For some children, the attachment to their thumb or soother is very strong. Don't try to stop them sucking if they are going through a stressful time. Try to remove any stress that could be worrying your child.

Try not to remind or criticise your children about sucking their thumb or soother. It could make them feel bad.

Long-term effects

Sucking their thumb or soother can affect your child's tooth and jaw development. At some point, you will need to encourage your child to do something else instead.

Your child may not have enough time to practice using their lips and tongue for talking or may not want to talk. This may take some time to correct. A child who is thumb-sucking or using a soother may not have the same opportunities to talk.

Your child may also breathe through their mouth if sucking a soother. This can lead to too much dribbling.

It's also important that you regularly wash your child's hands. Regular hand washing can help stop infections going from their hands to their mouths.

Tips to help your child stop using a soother

  • Only use soothers at set times. Remove the soother when the child is asleep.
  • Take your child's soother out when they are trying to talk or busy playing.
  • Give rewards other than food. For older children, try using a star chart to praise them.
  • Don't replace lost soothers. Throw all other soothers away.
  • Give the soother to Santa, Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny.

Once your child has given up the soother, don't be tempted to give it back. Stick with it - they will forget about it in time.

Tips to help your child stop thumb-sucking

  • Give your child something else to do with their hands when they are playing or relaxing. They will be less likely to suck their thumb.
  • Make sure your child's hands are clean so they don't get an infection in their mouth.
  • Give your child encouragement. Praise them for small successes when they try to stop thumb sucking.

Ask your dentist, GP or public health nurse for more advice about caring for your child's teeth.

Page last reviewed: 14/11/2018
Next review due: 14/11/2021