How to Gently End Finger-sucking, Thumb-sucking or Booger-Picking!


The last pic of Iris sucking her fingers. (horns she drew on herself from Halloween).

I felt a bit hypocritical after a recent post I wrote called Binky Be Gone. Sure, I have helped dozens of kids be done with the pacifier but my own kid was 3 and sucking her two little fingers (see above).  Pacifiers are just easier to get rid of because they are not attached, right? Recently it became clear that it was time to help my daughter end the finger-sucking habit. Even though the habit was waning, she had finally begun to develop some sort of large blister-callous on each sucking finger. With the process below (options A and B), finger-sucking was over in a week and it was easy and painless. My little girl was filled with wonderful sense of accomplishment! Weeks later we are still high-fiving.

Here is How to End Digit-sucking and Booger-Picking! 

1) Make sure your child is old enough to understand what they are doing and to learn or realize that the habit is either causing self harm (as in finger-sucking can damage teeth) or making people upset to see it (boogies!). Even better if the child wants to end the habit on her or his own. These are self-soothing behaviors and only a budding rational mind will be able to compete with the impetus and change a behavior. Babies should be allowed to self-soothe. Has a consequence already happened? Has someone laughed at or teased and your child was hurt, something was on the hand that made her sick or say yuck, the digit in question got swollen or infected or calloused? Did the nose bleed?

Between 2.5 and 4 is a good window. Still, don’t wait too long. Habits get more hard-wired in the brain over time. And similarly to what I say about potty learning, it isn’t as if you are going to give your child the choice to go on without this change forever, you may as well do it now, be clear that it will eventually be expected.

2) Let your child know ahead of time in a few random conversations that soon she will be big and not need to suck fingers/suck thumb/pick boogies anymore. Give it some space before beginning so that your child has an opportunity to voice concerns on her own. Let your child know that you will be on your his team, helping him figure out how to stop the habit. Have an aura of partners in crime, without the idea that you are personally going to enforce the change.

3) Give the child two choices out of the three below. These options will give the child a moment to pause before they continue the behavior and then they can make a choice repeatedly to stop.

A) Keeping band-aids around the fingers. Fun band-aids are ideal. Band-aids will help prevent the finger from getting far up enough to attack the boogers and will be very unsatisfying to suck on. But the main hint here is that it is a different feeling, something to shake up the status quo. Or…

B) Put Essential Oils under the nails/in the cuticles. You or the child may choose either a scent the child may be averse to or something fairly neutral. Try not to pick something that smells or tastes like cookies, say vanilla or orange.  I suggest something like cedar, clove etc. Though not toxic, these could still sting the eyes so dilute a drop or two of essential oil  in a tsp of carrier oil like olive, only apply a few times a day, minimally under the nails and in the cuticles and remind the child not to put fingers in the eyes. If your child touches his eyes frequently, do not use this option.

C) A logical and related reward. I’m not huge on rewards for trying to procure certain behaviors from kids, but I do admit that for kids over 3, working on a goal toward a reward can be very effective. Girls and boys can choose to aim toward a manicure with toxin-free nail polish either at home or at a nail shop. The reward could be rings (you can make great rings that fit tiny fingers and stay on if you use clear stretchy string and tiny beads). You can find stamp rings, batman rings etc.


D) Draw Finger Puppets. Use thin non-toxic markers to draw cute happy faces with clothes and hats on the digit in question. Re-apply after activity or hand washing and ask your child if she can “keep Thumb-Girl alive!” If the finger puppet gets messed up, say playfully, “Oh no, Finger Girl disappeared. I’ll draw her again. Don’t eat her/Let her get lost in your nose!”

A 5+ year-old could come up with their own  idea and you might say “Yay, let’s try it and if it doesn’t work we can try one of my ideas.” It should really only take one or two weeks at the most to break the habit with these tricks.

5) Re-Direct.  Ask your child if he knows that he is sucking his thumb/eating his boogers when you see it and offer another activity for the fingers. “Remember that fingers are for making art/ fingers are for eating snacks.” You can even teach your child to sing “Where is Thumbkin”,  “Twinkle Twinkle” or another hand game song when they realize the hand is going toward the mouth.

You can provide a replacement habit for a while. Most children shouldn’t need this and I almost fear that we set up just another habit. However, some children will have a habit so ingrained that they need any help possible including being re-directed to something easier on their body or other people’s sensibilities. If the behavior is mostly bedtime and the child already has other bedtime habits, you can re-direct attention to holding a stuffed animal, stroking one’s own hair, feeling/”fuzzing” a blanket etc. You can also try directing the child to move the hand to a pocket and keep gemstones in the pockets to feel (3yrs+).

What not to do:

Don’t compare the child to other kids who don’t have the habit.

Don’t make it all about how somebody else wants the child to stop. Focusing on negative attention may cause stress which might cause more of the  behavior you are trying to change together.

Don’t begin when the child is starting a new school or moving.

Don’t put something toxic on the digits. (aka thumb-sucking gels or mouth pieces.)

Don’t point out the habit if the child does as a comfort when they get hurt.

Don’t make it about germs. It is just as true that germs on our hands make us healthy as make us sick.  It has even been proposed (by just one scientist) that eating boogers provides a similar immune boost. Children are susceptible to fear of germs, phobias and obsessive compulsion around germs. Don’t let that be what replaces the unwanted habit.

Best of Luck!


About the Author of This Article:

Moorea Malatt is a mom and Parent Coach and Expert on Early Potty, Gentle Discipline and  Gentle Sleep learning in workshops and private phone consults at  She writes about gentle and effective natural parenting, being a mother, health, and play and more at  MamaLady Parenting. Moorea also wrote the album of songs called,  “Whip It Out: Songs for Breastfeeding”.


About mooreamalatt

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