Tips to stop thumb sucking by toddlers

I think Samaara was around 2.5 months old when she started sucking her thumb. Everyone found it to be a very cute habit. I am sure almost all of us go ‘Awww’ whenever we see a baby sucking her thumb. There is something so amazingly endearing about it, isn’t there?
But as time went on, and Sam slowly grew from infant to toddler, she did not show any signs of letting go of this comfort mechanism. And we started worrying about the effects on her teeth alignment and the shape of her lips. Friends and family also added to this worry by giving their (unsolicited!) opinions.

So we, or rather I, started researching on the topic. We checked the internet, as well as with friends, family and docs. But most of the suggestions seemed to be for kids older than 4 or 5 years. They were too much for a 2 yr old to fathom.

We did not want to break her out of it suddenly or forcefully. Children suck thumb for a reason – it is their self-soothing mechanism. It is said that some babies start thumb sucking while in their mom’s womb itself. It gives them as much (and sometimes even more!) comfort than being soothed by their mom. When we go for a quick-fix (like suddenly applying highly bitter medicine on the thumb), we are being very insensitive to the baby’s needs. We did not want to traumatize my daughter while trying to get her away from her biggest comfort…we just wanted her to be secure enough not to need that comfort. So we decided to try and enlist her cooperation in this endeavor.

The strategy we used worked brilliantly with Sam. She was 2 yrs old when we tried these tricks. In less than two months, Sam stopped thumb sucking. Honestly speaking, I had expected it to drag on for longer than that. Since then, only rarely does sucks her thumb – and that’s in sleep when she is thirsty. But if we gently remove her thumb from her mouth, she never complains, nor does she try to put it back into her mouth. I have given below the steps we took to get her out of it. I hope these tips are as helpful for you as they were for us. It was not one single trick that helped her break the habit. Rather, it was a combination of these tips, employed at appropriate times.

Step 1:  The ‘injured thumb’ ploy – This was the first trick we tried with Sam. One day we told her that her thumb was injured, and that we need to put medicine on it. Then I took some lemon juice (unsweetened, of course) and applied it on her thumb. We told her not to put it in her mouth as there’s medicine on it. I was proud to see her resisting temptation for some time, but after a little while she put it in her mouth. But when she got the taste, she immediately scrunched up her face and looked at her thumb as if it betrayed her! :-) We told her the ‘bad taste’ was because of the injury, and that the injury itself was because of her thumb-sucking. This did not stop her from sucking her thumb…the sour taste was too mild for that. But it caused her to become conscious whenever she sucked her thumb. We continued this ploy for some days, but finally we realized that she was starting to really like that taste. We knew it was time for the second stage of the operation….Only thing is, we did not know what the second stage would be! :-)

Step 2: Stickers galore! – We created a simple reward system. For each day that Sam did not suck her thumb, we, or rather 'baby Jesus', would give her a nice sticker. We gave the credit to Baby Jesus because I did not want her to keep bugging me for the stickers each day. Whenever she tried, we just told her Baby Jesus had not delivered it yet, and that he would deliver it only if she stuck to her side of the bargain. :-) Everyday we would hide it somewhere on her bed, and let her find it. We would help and give hints, of course. Each day we made a big production out of sticking it on our bathroom door and counting the stickers on the wall. This game became a big deal for her.
And an unexpected bonus…Because of all this sticker counting, Sam learned to count from 1 to 20 at the tender age of 2 yrs! I know, I know….I am a genius mom! :-) :-)

Slowly the stickers on the bathroom door became like a badge of honor for her. She would proudly show off her wall of stickers (sometimes multiple times) to every person who came visiting. Of course, she slipped up several times in a single day, but we would just remind her about the game and encourage her not to suck her thumb again. On days when she repeatedly kept breaking the deal, we did not give her stickers. She would cry and plead but we stood lovingly steadfast. But the next day, if she had earned the sticker we would sometimes give her a bonus sticker.

By the end of this game she had lost her dependence on thumb sucking. It was just something she did occasionally...and that too, just out of rebellion. This sticker game went on for around 20 days….and then stickers lost their charm. We realized that she was on the verge of restarting her habit because of a rebellious streak. Time for stage 3. :-)

Step 3: Thumb-sucker repellent – We felt she was now emotionally ready for some heavy duty measures. We started applying ‘Femite’, a bitter tasting liquid, onto her fingers. We told her this was also a medicine. Since Sam loves the whole idea of ‘medicine’ she was very agreeable to it. When she forgot and occasionally tried to suck on her thumb, she was reminded of what she was doing because of the bitterness. All through this stage, we maintained that the bad taste was because of her thumb sucking and not because of the medicine. If we had applied this bitter liquid to a child who is a full-time addict, we would be causing her a lot of trauma. But by keeping this heavy measure for the last, we had already ensured that she had lost the addiction. All she needed was a reminder system to keep her on track. We only had to do this for about 5-6 days. Within that time she outgrew the habit completely.

The best thing about this strategy was that throughout this entire process she was never an unwilling guinea pig….instead she was a willing and happy participant. So she was as proud of this victory as we were. From someone who needed to suck her thumb in order to sleep, Sam became someone who could sleep without any such crutch. Both Sam and we had many sleepless nights when she would battle the urge to suck her thumb. All I could do on those days, was walk with her in my arms and soothe her – with lullabies, words, pats on her back and cuddles. Words cannot express how proud I was of her, as I saw her win the first difficult battle of her life. At the end of each difficult day, as she slipped into sleep, I would tell her…Sleep, my angel….And each time, she sleepily called out to me….Akabila…..

Every time I heard her say it, my life felt complete.

Does your little one suck her thumb? How did you manage to get her out of that habit? I would love to know your tips. Please do mention them in the comments section. Thanks.


  1. Lovely article.. well narrated and ofcourse..great strategies... loved it...yaya.. "genius mom"i know.... and not to mention... the gorgeous mom-daughter duo.. lovely pics too..

  2. Well written Sheetal. It truly gets rewarding when your strategies pay off with double rewards - like Sam learning to count and willfully leaving the habit at the same time.

  3. Thanks for your comments. And yeah it truly is rewarding when done if your strategies pay off. Especially since most of the time we, first time parents, are just shooting in the dark. :-)

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