Thumbsucking & Pacifiers: Habit-Breaking Tips


Thumb-sucking or pacifier use, like smoking, is a very difficult habit to break. Many children abandon sucking on a pacifier, thumb or bottle sometime around their third birthday. If your child doesn’t, you will need to decide whether or not to try to end the habit now or wait another year or two to take action.


Helping your child break the habit

Things to consider

  • Does your child suck on the pacifier, thumb or bottle for a large part of the day? All-day sucking is much more harmful to the development of the mouth and teeth.
  • Is the sucking affecting the normal development of your child’s teeth, jaws or facial structures? We can assess this for you. Mild changes will correct themselves when the sucking stops – as long as it stops before the permanent teeth come in. More severe changes may require orthodontic treatment.
  • If your child exhibits any of these characteristics, then it would be wise to try to end the habit now or at least work on reducing its frequency.
    Is the sucking habit interfering with your child’s communication skills and/or his or her pronunciation? Is the habit interfering with your child’s social interaction? You can’t play catch with a thumb in your mouth. Is the habit interfering with learning other ways to cope with stress?


Get your child involved
Children can’t be forced to abandon a habit; they have to want to do so. Motivation can be inspired by the words of a professional, a parent, the teasing of friends, a sense of embarrassment over the habit, or even a desire to be more grown–up but there must be motivation. Talk to your child about quitting. Ask your child when would be a good time and whether “cold-turkey” or a go-slow approach is more appealing.

Get us involved too!
Parents can encourage children but still fail to break the habit. We find that a word from the child’s dentist or doctor may be enough to inspire your child. As dentists, we can comment on how thumb-sucking can make your teeth crooked or the mouth deformed.

Praise that “grown-up” behaviour
Don’t put down your child’s sucking habit as “babyish”, but take every opportunity to call attention to “big” boy or girl behaviour. For example, compliment your child on buttoning a shirt, climbing up the jungle gym without help, or using the toilet. The more appreciation garnered from grown–up behaviour, the more incentive to be grown up and to kick the habits left over from childhood.

Don’t nag!
Like all of us, children do not to respond positively to nagging. In fact, young children usually will tune it out or even rebel in response. Threats do not usually achieve the desired result so creativity is necessary. You can suggest that when your child has the urge to suck, he or she should make a fist with the thumb inside. Instead of nagging, try creating fun rhymes or songs as a reminder.

Be careful with substitutes
Keeping your child’s mouth occupied with conversation, a musical instrument, juice or milk from a straw may satisfy some of the need for oral gratification and offer a distraction. At times of the day when your child tends to suck most, provide a nourishing snack that requires a lot of chewing yet does not cause tooth decay. But, be careful not to replace one oral habit with another. A bottle in the bed as your child goes to sleep may help break one habit but will also cause tooth decay. Please discuss your ideas with our dental staff.

Reward positive behaviour
Your young child may be willing to try to give up the habit, in exchange for a special treat. But, even with the promise of a reward, your child still needs plenty of help and encouragement. You may want to offer a series of rewards as your child hits certain milestones. For example, if your child stops for a period of a few days, offer a small treat and if the behavior continues, the rewards continue. This form of behaviour modification can help to break your child’s habit.

Set limits and make a plan
If “cold turkey” isn’t an option, then work out a withdrawal plan for your child. For example, first, limit the habit to only while in the house. Then, put the living room off limits. Then one by one, add other rooms in the house. Next, set a time limit. Limit sucking to only after meals or before a nap. Present the limitations as a challenge or game. You can offer a reward for meeting each challenge or at least praise your child for meeting and exceeding each challenge.

Do NOT take the air out of the pacifier
This may sound like a great idea, but in reality, cutting or breaking the rubber on the pacifier may weaken the pacifier and cause parts to loosen and fall off in your child’s mouth. You don’t want to risk your child’s safety in an effort to break this habit.

Lose” the pacifier
You can “lose” the pacifier or favourite sucking object while on an outing. At that point, you can explain that you are not going to buy a new one because the dentist has said that you are too old for the pacifier.

Replace the comfort of sucking with other comforts
Children being deprived of a comfort habit need a lot of extra comfort from other sources during the withdrawal period and for a while afterwards. Lavish attention and affection on your child, spend extra time together, playing, reading, or doing whatever you and your child enjoy most.
Thumb and finger sucking are the most difficult habits to break. One can lose a pacifier or limit its use, but you can’t take your child’s fingers away. If your child is unable to stop finger sucking, even with the help of the above techniques, don’t demand and don’t despair. If necessary, we may need to take a different approach when your child is slightly older, around three to five years of age. We may consider using a foul-tasting nail polish, such as “Stop N Grow™” or place a metal reminder bar across the roof of the mouth to make sucking more difficult.





If your child uses a thumb or a pacifier obsessively and seems withdrawn or depressed, the sucking may represent more than a bad habit.  Discuss your concerns with us and consult your child’s doctor to try to uncover and resolve any underlying problems.