How can you stop your toddler from sucking his thumb?

I have a son who is 23-months-old and still sucking his thumb. I would like to get him to stop. Can you help me?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Sucking is a soothing activity for babies and young children. Your son sucks his thumb because it is a primary way that children of this age make themselves feel safe and secure. If you do not want him to suck his thumb, perhaps you could offer him a pacifier, even a bottle, a favorite blanket or a toy to hold onto that offers him a sense of security and soothing. These items are called "transitional" objects by child psychologists, because they help a child internalize or replicate the love they feel from their parents.

Be aware that boys are often shamed out of pacifiers, or sucking of any kind, earlier than girls because it acknowledges dependency. But boys, like girls, need soothing. And sucking is a primary reflex that nature provides for both emotional and physical (feeding) nourishment early in life. Frustrating his need to suck can set him up for nail biting or other nervous habits later.

Your son's thumb sucking does not mean that he is suffering undue insecurity. But denying him the ability to satisfy his sucking needs may also prevent him from developing the capacity to soothe himself. Still, it would not hurt to look at the bigger picture to see if your son is in the midst of any transitions or situations that might cause him to feel insecure.

Consider indulging your son's needs for sucking a pacifier or having a bottle of juice once or twice during the day. You may be surprised at how quickly he will be willing to relinquish his thumb for a substitute. Do not worry, he will give up the pacifier when he is ready. Three to four years of age is a common time for sucking activity to subside and be replaced with other comforting aids such as favorite toys, dolls or action figures.

There is always an overlap in the transition from sucking to holding (toys) for soothing. So it is wise to identify and encourage your child to adopt favorite toys that you know bring him that special solace.

Sleeping with these comfort toys, and taking them with him when he is separated from you, may reduce his need for sucking. He may also benefit from increased daily cuddling when the opportunity arises, such as when you are watching a video with him, or reading a book together.

Rest assured, he will grow up soon enough! But remember that none of us ever outgrows the need for soothing. This (sucking) activity is an essential part of his development toward greater independence. Successful self-soothing now is the foundation for enabling him to cope with adversity later.

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