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Learn how and when to help your kid kick the habit.

Believe it or not, if your child sucks his or her thumb while drifting off to sleep, that’s a healthy habit. After all, it means that your child can soothe him- or herself with something that can’t be misplaced (like a pacifier). But if breaking the habit doesn’t happen naturally, at some point you’ll want to help your child do it so that thumb-sucking, even if it’s just during sleep, won’t lead to problems with tooth alignment and proper mouth development.

Fortunately, many children lose interest in thumb-sucking by age three or four. If your child continues the thumb-sucking habit after that, you’ll want to take the following steps:

  • Make Quitting Your Kid’s Idea. To help your child think about giving up the thumb on his or her own, tell your kid how proud you are of the way that he or she is growing up and becoming a big boy or girl. Mention all the big-kid milestones he or she has achieved—learning to use the potty, feeding him- or herself, and so on—and then ask what other habits it might be time to develop. If your child doesn’t mention giving up thumb-sucking, gently offer the idea.
  • Suggest a Replacement. Tell your child that instead of soothing him- or herself to sleep with a thumb, it would be better at this age to have a special stuffed animal, a soft toy, or a cuddly blanket to cozy up to. If your child doesn’t have one that he or she treasures, consider investing in one.
  • Share Your Own Lesson. Tell your child about a habit that you changed when you were a kid, what you did to stick with it, and how glad you were when you mastered it. This will motivate your child to want to follow in your footsteps.
  • Rally Experts to Your Side. Encouraging words from a pediatrician or dentist can go a long way toward helping your child see that it’s time to stop sucking his or her thumb. When it’s framed as being for the sake of his or her health and development, ending the habit can seem more important to a youngster.
  • Point Out Progress. If your child nods off to sleep during a nap without sucking a thumb, after the nap, say how proud you are and explain that this proves that he or she no longer needs the habit. Positive reinforcement can work wonders.