Written by Doctor G

Fingers in His Mouth

Q: My 5-year-old recently started putting his fingers in his mouth when he’s watching TV, daydreaming, etc. He’s never been a thumb-sucker. This is new behavior. What’s up?

~ Norine, in Orlando, FL

A: Grab the baby milestones calendar! Developmentally, your five year old has gotten to a new stage. Actually, it’s a repeat of an old stage that he last experienced around 18 months. This is the If-It-Feels-Good-Do-It phase. Self-stimulation peaks in early toddlerhood, around age 5-6 and then again at puberty. In some kids it disappears entirely between these peaks, in some kids it just drops to a dull roar. If you’re wondering about adults, by then it’s not a phase, it’s a personality trait.

First off, consider yourself lucky. Your son is learning an important life-skill: self-soothing. For the first few years of his life, his favorite grownups were the source of all his comfort, now he’s learning to do it himself. Even better, his self-soothing is not taking the form of something publically inappropriate like masturbating (also normal at this age but often more upsetting for parents). You probably notice this behavior most when he is tired, or unsure of something. Most well-adjusted adults have some self-soothing habits – morning coffee, internet surfing (hmmmm…), retail therapy, exercise, the list goes on.

The best news I have is that this particular habit is probably self-limited. Most children do not develop life-long sucking habits starting at this age. Chances are he is not doing this at school or around friends unless he is totally comfortable with them. Also, it’s likely that his self-soothing habits will change. He may have one embarrassing experience of hearing from a friend or sibling that this is baby-ish, and then he’ll monitor himself better and pick something new. Don’t worry about protecting him from that moment – it won’t kill him and it will teach him something valuable. Be comforted yourself – he’s doing this in front of you because you are in a safe space with him. I would not recommend spending too much of your own brain-power on this unless you feel that the time he spends doing this is increasing dramatically. If so, look for the source of his discomfort and talk to him about it.

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16 thoughts on “Fingers in His Mouth”

  1. My 2yr old puts her whole hand in mouth she now have bumps and dry skin around her mouth help what can i do?

  2. My 7 and a half yr old daughter started putting her fingers in her mouth about 4 months ago. She does it all the time-even at school. Mostly it seems she does it absentmindedly. It’s starting to become a real problem as it seems she is doing it more and more. I have had conversations with her teacher about her suspicions that she may have a tactile issue. I have always noticed some quirky behaviours with her and have long thought she would most likely place on the autism spectrum but nothing I would want assessed or to label as she functions very well apart from some distinct behaviours. Could this finger sucking be something like this or is it just a normal phase? Do you have any ideas on addressing this behaviour? Thanks

    1. It could be a tactile issue, certainly. She may be using it to soothe an anxiety or concern, or it just may feel good. Have you tried a reward system to see if she can replace that habit with one that you and her teacher find more socially acceptable?

  3. My 10 y/o ID son started putting 2 fingers, one on top of the other, in between his front teeth. It started when school let out for the summer.

  4. Thank you so much for this information. My 2.5 year old daughter started doing this exactly one week ago when we were visiting a family with an infant who was constantly putting her hands in her mouth. Now my daughter has been doing it frequently. I noticed she does it when she’s tired. I can see how this may be self soothing because we’ve been weening from nursing too.

  5. Hi,

    My son will turn 4 in a month and he still places his thumb in the mouth at daycare or while watching tv or going to sleep. I tell him all the time to take it out and now he sees me and takes it out immediately. When going to sleep since he does not want me to ask him to take his thumb out he asks me to leave his room. What can I do? Am I taking the wrong approach? Is this terrible bad that he still puts his thumb in the mouth?

  6. I think is gross & believe this is why my child gets sick often. Finger in the mouth while watch tv, playing, going to bed etc! I see her & tell her she’s gonna get sick & she’ll stop but only for a limited time. Frustrating to say the least.

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