There are plenty of articles about stopping thumb sucking in toddlers, but what do you do if your child is a bit older than that and still sucking their thumb? What if your school-aged child is still sucking away?

Let’s have a look at why your child might be still thumb-sucking at school, and some simple but effective things you can do about it.

Why is my child thumb-sucking at school?

Thumb sucking for most children is a comfort behaviour, as well as by now a fairly well-learned habit.

They may suck their thumb unconsciously, in which case drawing their attention to it as often as possible will help – but if they are using it for comfort or security then you should also look at what may be worrying them.

If your child stopped thumb sucking when they were younger and have taken up the habit again since starting school, then it may be a sign of underlying anxiety that they are facing.

Thumb sucking is one sign of stress or worries at school, but there might be others instead, such as carrying a stuffed toy to school, separation anxiety and tears at drop off, and nail-biting or picking at their skin.

It may also be a sign that they are tired and lacking in energy. You may be able to help the situation by making sure your child gets plenty of sleep every night and east the right range of vitamins and minerals for their age. You may need to increase calcium or iron intake to help with energy, or consider adding a child’s multivitamin to their morning routine.

Why is thumb sucking a problem?

The main reason why you don’t want school-aged children still sucking thumbs or fingers is that it may push their permanent teeth out of alignment.

As by now they will start losing baby teeth and have their permanent teeth grow in, is it essential that these grow into the right place. Misalignment can cause tooth decay from plaque hiding in odd places, which may necessitate costly dental work such as plates and braces later on.

School-aged children are more likely to become self-conscious about their sucking than toddlers and even pre-schoolers will be. Older children will notice how few of their peers are still sucking, which will make their habit stick out like a…well, a sore thumb.

Older children may find themselves the object of teasing at school for continued thumbsucking. This may help some children to stop the habit themselves, but for others can cause increased anxiety and even more thumbsucking to self-soothe.

Tips to stop your child thumb sucking at school

It is best if you manage to get your child to stop sucking when they are younger, but if you are facing the reality of your child’s thumb-sucking at school, there might not be much point regretting that you didn’t get them to quit before now.

If they are sucking as a comforting technique or to manage anxiety then you need to also address the cause of their stress.

It can help to put in place a morning routine to get your child to mentally prepare for the day, get them up earlier and encourage them to help you make lunches, lay out their clothes, etc.

Plan a separation strategy including where and when you will say goodbye and then stick with this. Give your child a good long hug before letting them go for the day – just linger a tiny bit longer than you think should be enough and this will greatly help your child.

You can also substitute the thumb for a necklace designed for teething such as this or by replacing it with something like a fidget cube or small stress ball or worry doll.

You could also try popping little notes into their lunchbox to remind them during the day to not suck.

Some other tips that can help

Mindfulness apps for children are helpful to move their focus away from the thumbsucking and from anything that may be worrying them.

It helps to start practising mindfulness every day with your child for ten minutes or so – after school or before bed might be a good time. An app like Calm or Smiling Mind can help.

Reward programs work well for older children as they have the ability to recognise when they are sucking and take steps to control it.

You can try to dissuade your child by making their thumb less pleasurable to suck. You could try putting a bandaid or cotton glove on the thumb, or using nail polish designed to stop people biting their nails. Some parents have tried putting cayenne pepper on the thumb.

Chat to your dentist about ideas to help your child to control the habit a bit. Sometimes getting a serious talking to from the dentist may encourage them to stop, especially if they get in-depth detail about what teeth look like when they grow the wrong way! Your dentist may also be able to suggest a special orthodontic appliance which also helps to discourage your child.

The main difficulty is that older children are usually clever enough or resilient enough to bypass any method you put into place to get them to quit sucking their thumb. They need to actively want to stop to really make a permanent change.