Finger and thumb sucking: 7 tips to wean and stop the habit

Sucking is a natural instinct for an infant & often sticks around as a comforting habit into the toddler years. Thumb or finger sucking has a huge emotional component, so remember — in order to successfully wean, your child must be mentally ready to change their behavior & break the habit.

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1️⃣ UNDERSTAND YOUR CHILD’S EMOTIONAL STATE

The thumb/finger is your child’s security object to manage their emotions. Until they learn to express these emotions verbally, your child copes by depending on the sucking.

In order to successfully wean, it’s important to figure out which situations trigger your toddler to want their thumb/finger, and teach them other techniques to soothe. Be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings and to help them place names to their emotions.

2️⃣ GIVE YOUR CHILD OTHER MEANS OF SECURITY

Build your child’s sense of love with connecting games. Some simple and fun ideas are:

  • “Tug-of-war between 2 parents
  • Creating a secret handshake together
  • Matching clothes or temporary tattoos
  • Special time together before bed
  • Eye contact, hugs, and kisses – be the last one to let go
  • Back rubs, massages, cuddles
  • Telling jokes and laughing together
  • Impromptu dance parties
  • Reading a story with your child sitting in your lap – Olivia loves this one!

You can also decrease their sense of anxiety with separation/return games (like peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek), or give them a transitional comfort object like a blanket or stuffed animal.

3️⃣ BE POSITIVE

Don’t force the change and never shame your child, and use positive language to explain to your child why it’s important to break the habit. When they aren’t sucking their thumb / finger, praise and reward them to help build good habits. For example, instead of telling your child “if you don’t stop, your teeth will look funny,” use positive language such as “Stopping will help you maintain a beautiful smile.”

4️⃣ DISTRACT THE HANDS

Keep your child busy during the day with activities that use their hands, such as crafts, building legos, puzzles, etc. You can also introduce “fidget toys” or stress balls to help ease any underlying anxiety.

5️⃣ CREATE REMINDERS

Gently remind your child verbally when you see them sucking. When your child is sleeping, you can use physical reminders to cover the hands. Every child is different, so find what works for your child to structure reminders during the day & during sleep.

Some physical reminders could include:

  • Wrapping a bandaid or washi tape around your child’s finger
  • Letting your child chew on a teether or sugar-free gum, if they are 4 years or older
  • Covering hands at bedtime with socks

6️⃣ BE CONSISTENT

Make sure all family members are on board with the plan so that your child receives consistent communication and attention to help them break the habit. Use verbal praise and encouragement that specifies the action that you would like reinforced.

7️⃣ MAKE IT FUN

Keep the experience fun and positive for the whole family with interactive activities. A fun activity for positive reinforcement weaning is to use a sticker system, where you award your child stickers when the thumb / finger is not used for a set period of time, during moments of stress, or during sleeping. You can also set up a reward chart or calendar, where you reward your child with a prize or experience if they go 1-2 weeks without sucking.

If you and your child love to read together, there are a number of book recommendations to help with thumb and finger sucking weaning:

  1. David Decides About Thumbsucking: Parents are instructed to read the “parent guide” and then the “story portion” to their child. In a study, 48 out of 50 children ended up quitting their habit.
  2. Thumbs Up Brown Bear: A fun board book for younger children that is filled with positive verbal encouragement and bright pictures.
  3. The Berenstein Bears and the Bad Habit: The theme of the book is how to change habits by being persistent.

Have you tried weaning your child from finger and thumb sucking? What works for you and your family?

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