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A Thumb Sucking Action Plan

A Thumb Sucking Action Plan

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I have a newly turned 6 year old daughter with a pretty major thumb sucking habit. She started sucking her thumb pretty much as soon as it’s even physically possible to do that, and my husband and I were all “Awesome! No more lost pacifiers! Sleep for us! Win!”, and at that point, it was. But here we are 5 and a half years later and now we’re worried about permanent teeth and braces and long term consequences, oh my.

The Internet seems to fall into two categories on this, the first being to put every revolting substance and bizarre contraption on the thumb to dissuade sucking, and the second being more “it’ll happen when it happens, just chill, man.” I think there has to be somewhere in the middle.

A few things to note: she doesn’t suck her thumb at school, because she thinks it’s not allowed there. I’m not sure where she picked this idea up, but I’ve not dissuaded her from believing that. The potential for peer shaming was a big concern of mine, so I’m glad that that particular issue has worked itself out. The time she is most likely to suck her thumb is while watching TV, in the car and when she’s tired. Basically, when she’s not physically active, her thumb is in her mouth. She also sucks her thumb to fall asleep, but doesn’t keep it in her mouth all night.

Up this point, we’ve basically just been reminding her to stop when she’s sucking her thumb especially when she’s watching TV, but.. well, you can imagine how well that’s working. My husband is a lot more concerned about this then I am, and he tends to get in her about it more then I do, which is frustrating for both of them. One idea that I’ve proposed is that she can chew gum while she watches TV to give her something else to do with her mouth, so we’ve started that recently, but again, that’s just not a long term solution.

Basically, I think we need to deal with the issue one thumb sucking opportunity at a time (TV, car, bedtime, etc), but I’m really not sure how to start and how to go about this. I feel like I’m a pretty good creative problem solver, and this has me stumped. I don’t want to make her feel badly about it, and I don’t want to take away a self soothing strategy, but I also don’t want her to deal with long term consequences from this, physically or socially.

So, master of all things advice related, how do I get my kid to stop sucking her thumb without scarring her for life?

I have a thumb sucker. He is 5 and a half. He sucks his thumb at bedtime, or whenever he’s curled up with his blankies. Like your daughter, he doesn’t keep his thumb in his mouth all night, and we’ve firmly established that the blankies are for bedtime only and they live in his room and do not ever leave. (Since his thumb sucking habit is directly linked to the feel and smell of the blankies — if we let him carry them around, I’m sure we’d see a lot more sucking during the day.)

Here’s what I’m actively doing about it right now:

Uh.

Not too much, beyond the blankie rule. I’ve noticed a natural decline in the amount of thumb sucking he does as he gets older, without us nagging or making a Thing about it. In fact, we briefly noticed the opposite — if we did comment on it on request that he stop in front of his brothers or other people, the need to suck on his thumb (or hand, or toys, etc.) seemed to become more compulsive, like a nervous tic. So we stopped. His dentist is content with our reports that he’s not sucking his thumb all night or anything, and is more in the camp of “it’ll stop when it stops,” and isn’t pushing us to DO something about it or push back the blankie issue yet.

I too was a finger sucker/blankie addict as a child, and stopped both eventually, when I was ready. (I was older than your daughter — maybe 7 or 8?) I still appreciate how patient my parents were about it. I had several false starts on the “saying goodbye to Cribby” thing (my blankie was an old, tattered crib sheet) and it was always returned to me if I changed my mind. So it sort of naturally became something *I* wanted to do, to prove something to them and myself. I remember occasionally still treating myself to some furtive, bedtime finger sucking after that, but I’d gotten the message: Only babies do that. I’m not a baby.

I got that message, by the way, WITHOUT a need for my parents to nag or shame or bother me. It was always very matter-of-fact, like, “you won’t always want to suck on your fingers, when you’re a big girl and you’re ready, you’ll stop.”

(It probably helped a lot that I was the youngest child of SEVEN, because of all the things to worry about, the idea of me sucking my fingers until college didn’t rank very high.)

One last dental anecdote: I did have a ton of orthodontic issues, but none of them (save for a slight overbite) were solely the fault of my finger sucking. I just had too many big permanent teeth in a very small, crowded mouth. My oldest (who never sucked his thumb or used a pacifier or ANYTHING) has inherited this problem, while my chronic thumb sucker’s teeth are just fine and nicely even, so far.

It’s slightly different in your daughter’s case, since the thumb sucking isn’t tied to a lovey object, but is just something she likes doing with her hands and mouth. Neither of which you can confine to a bedroom or take away from her. Here’s what I would suggest:

1) Stop nagging or making a “bad” thing out of it. This is mostly pointless as you simply can’t watch her all the time, and she’ll learn to do it when you’re not around, because she’s possibly not emotionally ready to soothe herself in other ways. There’s a fine line between a habit and a compulsion or tic, and making her constantly associate a stressed-out “uh-oh I’ve been caught” feeling with the sensation of yanking her thumb out of her mouth might push her in the wrong direction.

2) Continue to offer her gum or other things to suck/gnaw on or fidget with. Let her sip on a nice thick smoothie from a straw in front of the TV. Keep her hands occupied in the car with a special grab-bag of small toys or puzzles that you rotate occasionally. When you catch her sucking, just immediately and wordlessly redirect her with something, anything else. No, this isn’t a long-term solution but don’t worry about it. (My 8-year-old still uses Therapy Chews for his oral motor and self-regulation issues, and GUH. I HATE THEM. But for now, he needs them.) You’re just trying to cut down on a habit in the short term: a habit that she will likely outgrow on her own in the long term anyway.

3) Absolutely encourage the idea that thumb sucking isn’t allowed at school or out in public. Maybe refer to it as “bedtime thing.” Peer pressure will probably be a bigger component to breaking the habit than all the parental nagging in the world, and that’s okay. I know it stings to imagine another kid pointing at her and telling her that only babies suck their thumbs, but in this case, that kid is just going to be more persuasive than you. (And it’s not like she could spin around and look at you all betrayed, like, “Why didn’t you TELL me that?” because I’m sure she’s already gotten that message loud and clear that this is a habit you’d like her to stop.)

If her dentist hasn’t spoken to her directly about it at one of her appointments, ask him or her to, in a gentle, non-pushy way. Ours usually asks Ezra to try his best to keep his thumb and fingers out of his mouth, like a big boy, so he can keep his handsome smile, etc.

I don’t know if those talks have had any effect, but overall I’m personally pretty satisfied with our current action plan of mild inaction. The habit is lessening on its own and I don’t have to feel like a jerk who nags him all the time. He’s a terribly sensitive and attached little boy, and my gut is just telling me not to force this issue (thumb and blankie) yet. He’ll make the leap when he’s ready, and I will be his biggest cheerleader because God, I STILL remember how hard it was to say goodbye to those special comforts of young childhood.

Worst-case, for your daughter, this habit will die when sleepovers start becoming a thing, or…yeah, she gets fitted with an overbite appliance that changes the way it feels. I know there are some adult thumb suckers who wear bite guards from the drugstore at night and stuff — if there are any out there reading this I’d be super interested in hearing what you maybe wished your parents did or didn’t do about the habit when you were the OP’s daughter’s age.

(Or if you’re just like, whatever, I kept my teddy bear and suck my thumb when I’m anxious, and I’d still rather do that than be constantly popping Xanax or stress-drinking three bottles of wine.)

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Deanna
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Deanna

I wish I had something to contribute to this, but nope. When I was getting to leave pre-K for full time kindergarten (so nap time was at school), I decided to stop sucking my thumb (well middle fingers) because “big girls don’t suck their their thumb”. And that was that. I’ve always had pretty strong willpower, and it saved me a lot of orthodontia compared to my sister who sucked her thumb for ages.

Mary
Guest

The peer pressure thing worked on me. I was a hair sucker until my (older! glamorous!) dance teacher called it gross, one on one. I was a first grader. Nagging and discussion with parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles hadn’t really helped, but one well placed comment from the right source did the trick.

Hi, I'm Natalie.
Guest
Hi, I'm Natalie.

So I have to cute back on my anxiety about my almost-2yo’s thumb-sucking? Ughhhhh.

(Thanks, I really enjoyed this post.)

tadpoledrain
Guest
tadpoledrain

I had a pacifier until I was… 10? 11? Only allowed to have it in bed and on long car rides starting when I was, I don’t know, 3 or so. Never had an overbite or crooked teeth. I could go the night without it on sleepovers and stuff (although at least one of my friends knew I still used it, and didn’t make fun of me), but I just really, really wasn’t ready to give it up permanently. I needed the comfort and the control of knowing I was making the decision. Once my mom tried to bribe me… Read more »

Mary
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Mary

I, too, sucked my thumb for far too long.  But hey, I never had to have braces. I just grew up and grew out of it.  And you are right, the more my parents told me not to do it, the more I did it.  I have two daughters-one five and one that just turned two.  The five year old sucked on receiving blankets until she was past three ( around the time her younger sister was born).  The two year old is a world champion thumb sucker.   And you know what?  Both are ok.  Both gave up a… Read more »

Hope
Guest

My sisters and I sucked our fingers/thumbs a lot longer than we should have. Our pediatrician asked our mom “would you rather pay for braces or therapy?” She chose braces.

Ours might have been a special case, because our parents were going through a pretty bitter divorce at the time.  

I’m very glad that she let us stop when we were ready instead of forcing it on us.

Jesabes
Guest

I sucked my thumb until I was 7 or 8 as well, and so did my younger sister. She has perfect teeth, never needed braces. I…was not the same, but for mainly the same reasons as Amy. My mouth was/is too small to fit all my permanent teeth so some had to be pulled as they came in and the others were rearranged to fill in the gaps. It was involved, but would have had to be done whether I was a thumb-sucker or not. Basically, the thumb sucking was a non-issue for both my sister and I once we… Read more »

Lisa Y
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Lisa Y

My oldest sucked her first two fingers from the time she could get them into her mouth.  Our pediatrician told us it was a non-issue until she was four.  One day soon after she turned four, she happened to need a Band Aid on one of those fingers and wouldn’t suck her fingers with the Band Aid on one.  So every night for a couple of weeks we put a Band Aid on one of those two fingers and that was the end of it.  But now that I read Amy’s post and some of the comments, I feel a… Read more »

Jillian D K
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Jillian D K

You shouldnt feel guilty.  Different strokes for different folks, I am sure you’re a wonderful mom and you oldest is just fine 🙂  

Natascha
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Natascha

I did the same thing with my son. He had a callus on his thumb that was getting pretty bad from the thumb sucking so I put a bandaid on it one day. He was about 2 at the time. I noticed that he wouldn’t suck his thumb with the bandaid on there so every time he went to bed or nap I let him pick his own cool bandaid for his thumb. After about a month he had broken the habit.

Michelle
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Michelle

My parents had our dentist make a retainer for my brother to get him to stop sucking his thumb.  It only took a few days to work.  This was a long time ago (he is 30 now).  He cried for a few days at bedtime and then he was fine.  The retainer basically prevents you from getting a good suction – it’s not painful or anything.     

Amber_S
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Amber_S

I sucked my thumb until I was at least 5 (I recently found my sticker chart for not sucking with the date on it). Some of my earliest memories are of my parents trying to get me to stop sucking my thumb (they put something bitter on it, covered it with a huge bandaid, and then put more bitter stuff on that). I wish it could have just been a non issue. I most likely did feel guilt and shame about it, which led to even more thumb sucking. Yeah, I needed braces from 4th grade till 7th, and I… Read more »

Tric
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Tric

I had an underbite and was encouraged by my orthodontist (in third grade) to pick up a thumb sucking habit to help my braces.  I declined.  

Mariah
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Mariah

I had a pacifier until I was 6. My mom let me get my ears pierced in exchange for giving it up.  My dad built a little stand with a hook on it that they let me decorate, and my “Binkie” still hangs on that “Binkie shrine” in my room at their house. Just one example of how awesome my parents were. 🙂 

Laura Lou
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Laura Lou

I sucked the first two fingers on my right hand nearly constantly until I was 4. My mom made a big deal that when I turned 4, I would be a big girl and big girls don’t need to suck their fingers. She made it a very positive thing, like isn’t it great that 4 year olds can do all these amazing things and don’t need their fingers anymore!? I don’t remember what she did about me doing it during the day, but I do remember her rocking and singing me to sleep for a few weeks until I could… Read more »

Kat
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Kat

This is a pretty cute idea. I love it when parents provide something fun when kids are growing out of things. We had a pacy (binkie) fairy in our house. She came and picked up all of our pacis when we were old enough, so that she could give them out to new babies all over the world. It was quite a production, we got thank you letters in the mail for a few weeks afterwards from all those lucky kids that got our used pacis!

MJH
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MJH

I sucked my thumb until I was 10 or 11, I think. Only at night, NEVER around other people (I stopped doing that at 5 or 6, as I heard rumors of other kids noticing.)

I needed braces, but mostly because my mouth was too small for all my teeth, so I probably would’ve needed them anyway (my cousins who didn’t suck anything, and my brother, who quit long before I did, all needed braces).
She will stop, in her own time, when she doesn’t need it anymore.

Cheryl S.
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Cheryl S.

I sucked by thumb until I was about 11 years old. I had an overbite and needed braces. My mom told me that I’d get braces when I quit sucking my thumb. Guess what? I stopped within a week of that ultimatum because something else (getting braces) was more important to me than sucking my thumb.

Liz
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Liz

I knew that my parents wanted me to stop sucking my thumb when I was about 6, but they never nagged me about it and I didn’t stop right away. I remember my pediatrician discussing with my mother and me the importance of stopping and suggesting some strategies (like sucking on carrots, which I don’t believe we tried). That conversation impressed upon me that I would please everyone by stopping, so I went cold turkey on Mother’s Day. Of course my mother didn’t notice, so several days later I shyly asked her if she saw anything different about me. Crickets.… Read more »

Cait
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Cait

I honestly don’t remember sucking my thumb (I know I did, I just don’t remember it) but I have always had chewing issues. I chew through pens, packs of gum, my own lip and recently figured out that when I concentrate I stick my tongue out and chew that (weird right?) My parents basically just discouraged me from chewing things that were dangerous (stuff off the floor, anything I could choke on) and redirected me towards “normal” things, sugar free gum and the like. But honestly my oral fixation never went away, it just got better and less noticeable as… Read more »

Shoshie
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Shoshie

It doesn’t have any dental implications, obviously, but I’m 28 and still cuddle with a security blanket at night. I made my husband go back and get it when I was in labor and forgot to bring it to the hospital. I’m glad that my parents never forced the issue. The worst thing it’s caused us some mild ribbing from my husband.

Jillian K D
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Jillian K D

I am by no means encouraging my mothers manipulation tactics, but just for sharing purposes…. I remember my mother told me I would get buck teeth like Geena Davis (before she fixed her teeth, she had horrendous buck teeth.) I stopped instantly! lol 

Ellie
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Ellie

I sucked my thumb every night until I was eight. My parents were completely laid back about it. And then I got invited to my first sleepover party. I distinctly remember thinking oh crap, I gotta quit this thumb-sucking or everyone will think I’m a huge baby. (I was very susceptible to peer influence at that age.)

My parents said, we know you can do it! And the night before the party I did a trial run of falling asleep without my thumb in my mouth. I never sucked it again.

Mindy
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Mindy

Both my children sucked their thumb – my son until the second grade, my daughter until preschool. My son stopped on his own in first grade, but when I found out the reason (“God won’t love me if I suck my thumb”), I insisted he start sucking again! LOL

What made them both stop was a discussion with the dentist about what could happen to their teeth/mouth if they continued. Logic worked (in this ONE case!)

June
Guest
June

I sucked my thumb until I was 11 or 12, but not in public and only at bedtime (peer pressure works really well). My dad briefly mentioned that I should try to stop when I was maybe 7 or so but I didn’t and no one ever mentioned it. I’m fairly certain it would’ve made me feel pretty ashamed if they pushed the issue because there was no way I was going to stop until I felt ready. I’ve never needed braces or had any orthodontia issues. It seems like it’s just not a big deal and why push it?

Stefanie
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Stefanie

I was 9 when I stopped sucking my thumb. I didn’t do it at school and would be very sneaky about it if I did it at sleepovers. My parents were constantly yelling at me to stop, but that’s not what made me stop. In fact, my mom claims that I only started sucking my thumb at around a year old because my older brother and sister did and she was always yelling at them for it, so I was looking for attention.  Generally, for things like this that you can’t force kids to do or not do, I resort… Read more »

Jessica
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Jessica

I sucked my thumb as a child, until I was about 8 or 9 (although from around age 6 it was only at night). My parents did try to get me to stop a few times, however they weren’t really strict about it. When I did finally stop, it was like a light switch went off in my brain – suddenly I didn’t need that anymore. I am the only one of my siblings that didn’t need braces (my top teeth in particular are perfectly straight) and my dentist says my bite is perfectly aligned. The only lasting effect of… Read more »

Thumbalina
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Thumbalina

I sucked my thumb forever. No really, that age you are thinking, double it. I had to have braces and jaw surgery because my jaw grew wrong from all the sucking. I pretty much only sucked my thumb at night – never at school or around other kids – but it was definitely a thing for me.

Chris
Guest
Chris

I would have to say just keep trying to distract her.  I was a thumbsucker till I got my braces at 14.  I only did it at home and only when going to bed.  My dental work was like Amalah, too many teeth for my mouth.  My mom tried everything, gross tasting nail polish, gloves, shame.  I knew I needed to stop, but it was such habit that I couldn’t stop.  I do think that if my mom had a conversation with me when I was 7 or 8 about me wanting to stop instead of telling me it could… Read more »

Jen
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Jen

OP here! Thanks Amy, and commenters for assuaging my fears! It’s actually really helpful for me to hear from all of you who were thumb suckers and eventually just stopped on your own. I think we’ll do all the things Amy suggested and I’ll definitely ask our dentist about it, but it sounds like a combo of peer pressure and age is our best bet, so I’m good with that. Thanks again!

Amy Renee
Guest
Amy Renee

We tried a lot of different things with my son to get him to stop sucking his thumb, but none worked until HE decided he wanted to stop, in the summer between K and 1st grade. Things that helped a little: 1) After he turned 5 we only allowed thumbsucking in bed. Watching TV and sucking his thumb was NOT allowed – we would turn off the TV and he could decide – go up to bed and suck his thumb, or watch his show without the thumb. We generally turned a blind eye to it on long or late… Read more »

Bethany West
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Bethany West

Another vote here for bribery. My parents had tried the bitter tasting stuff and nagging, but it wasn’t until the summer before kindergarten (I was 5, almost 6) that I was promised ear piercing for quitting. We’re from a small town, so when we visited family in the city (where they have Claire’s!) my mom said it was basically now or never since there weren’t any piercing places at home. We had been there a few days when I asked (emotionally) why I hadn’t gotten my ears pierced. She said I had to stop first, so I did. Got my… Read more »

Jgamma
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Jgamma

Hah. I. sucked my thumb privately until I was 10, when I got a retainer (for non-thumb sucking-related issues) and the damned thumb wouldn’t fit in my mouth anymore. I was very comforting, and when I couldn’t do that anymore I switched to nail-biting – a nasty habit I still have.

Danielle
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Danielle

I sucked my thumb ’till I was about 10, when my parents bribed me to quit with a sticker chart (I had to go 30 consecutive days without doing it, by which time, as my mom had predicted, it didn’t feel right anymore anyway). But then at 12, I got braces for a mild UNDERbite that I would have had anyway and had nothing to do with the thumb sucking. Also, there’s an excellent independent film called Thumbsucker about a teenager who is being pressured by the adults in his life to quit sucking his thumb. It depicts a lot… Read more »

Kim
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Kim

As a teacher of third graders, I would just give my students a small hand signal when I fought them sucking their thumb, and then send them to wash their hands.  It wasn’t a big deal, but you know, mouth spit on your thumb, not no nice to share.  It seemed to work ok. My youngest is a big time finger sucker, and she’s had severe sleep apnea for a long time. Once she turned three, I strted discouraging the finger sucking at school.  Our rule is at home and in the car, but by the end of her preschool… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

My husband sucked his thumb until he was in grade 9. (Only at home) largely because of his parents nagging/yucky stuff coating/shaming him about it.  Had they left him alone he likely would’ve outgrown it much faster and in a healthier way.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

Honestly, I sucked my thumb until I was 18. I lived in a very unstable household with parents in a destructive relationship where they often verbally  took out their frustration on me, and this was my coping technique of choice. Did I feel guilt and shame? Of course I did but compared to the techniques I saw my peers use to exert control over their lives like cutting themselves or bulimia, it kind of put the thumb sucking in context. I never did it around others once it became taboo amongst my peers at around 7 or 8, normally if… Read more »

DontBlameTheKids
Guest

I’m so glad to read this. My first daughter used a paci, and I was glad because it meant we could just take it away when the time came. But my second refused a paci and sucks her fingers. Obviously we can’t take her fingers away.

She is only 18 months old, so no hurry. But I have been wondering about it lately, and I am relieved to see that for most people, the problem solves itself at some point.

Emily Huston
Guest
Emily Huston

I too have sucked my thumb until I was 2 yrs and layoff my habit with my mom’s intervention. And now it’s my turn to take care of my baby habit. He is just 6 month and has strated sucking his hand. May be this was the start of his teething as he takes up everything in his mouth.

Jen
Guest
Jen

I was a thumb sucker and remember my parents putting things on my thumb, telling me about it ruining me teeth, and overall nagging and not always being kind about it. In the end, what stopped me was realizing that other kids didn’t have a callous on their thumb like me, and just made a concentrated effort to tuck my hands under my pillow. I needed braces, and even jaw surgery, some of which was related to thumb sucking. Fast forward 26 years later and I now have an almost 4 year old who is also aggressively attached to her… Read more »