Toddler Development

4 min Read

Thumb Sucking

Sucking is a natural reflex that provides instant comfort and security. More than three-quarters of babies do it, some even starting in utero.

So when does the habit go from normal to nasty? My 19-month-old son has always been what you would call a big sucker. A ‘mother sucker’ in the first week of life, he came at me like a starved man at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Needless to say, we were quickly faced with a supply and demand problem, (i.e. my supply couldn’t match his insatiable demand). While breastfed, he peed crystals: a sure sign of dehydration. Within a week, in spite of my best efforts, I was forced to close up shop.

Thumb sucking - parents canadaMy son thrived on the bottle. He ate like a horse, and though relieved to see him growing, I was more than a little saddened that he wasn’t able to dine ‘on the house’. Before long he developed an unhealthy attachment to the pacifier. Although he wasn’t a daytime sucker, at night you couldn’t wrench the silicone nipple from his mouth for love nor money. Naturally I blamed the premature withdrawal of the boob. But many breastfed babies become suckers, too. So what makes some babies ‘suckier’ than others?

When my son was about four months old, there were pacifiers – in a constant rota of sterilization – dotted all over the house. He needed the soother to fall asleep. And when it inevitably fell out, he would rage until I stumbled out of bed to plonk the thing back into his puckered little mouth. This ritual carried on every night, throughout the night, until I decided it was time for an intervention. Like the mother of any addict, I longed to see him break the chains once and for all.  

In anticipation of a sleepless week, I waited until Mr. Green was abroad on business. The cold turkey approach went smoother than expected. Much to my dismay, my son had discovered something even more satisfying to suck: his thumb. In fact, he sucked with such vigour that the skin on his knuckle soon grew blistered and raw. A mom I was acquainted with at the time said, “At least you can get rid of a pacifier. You can’t exactly get rid of a thumb…” To which I replied, “Actually, you can,” just to freak her out. (Needless to say, we’re no longer acquainted.)  

In truth, my son’s latest habit bothered me more than I let on. Like mother, like son. Seeing what I despise in myself reflected in him isn’t easy. A long-time thumb sucker, I later became a nail biter and a smoker. I’ve since dropped the cigarettes, but to this day my nails remain bitten down to the quick. A disgusting and unsightly, if subconscious, habit.

By the time they are three or four, most kids stop sucking of their own accord. Up to this age, there’s no real detriment to the habit, aside from a babyish image that some parents find embarrassing, and that most ‘big boys and girls’ are keen to shed. Beyond then, sucking can cause damage to (permanent) teeth and bones, and may even affect speech development.

You name it, my mother tried it – from bitter nail polishes (I simply gagged while continuing to suck), to taping a wool mitten on my hand overnight (by morning the mitten was always mysteriously unstuck). These days there are fancy mouth guards and thumb braces guaranteed to help the sucker quit in 10 days or your money back. In my case a protracted and costly orthodontic treatment ensued. I may have a beautifully straight smile today, yet I am no closer to being freed of the oral fixation than I was all those years ago.

I’m not alone. I’ve seen tots suck on just about anything, from shirt tails to shoelaces, which leads me to wonder: Are some people natural born suckers? Or is anxiety an underlying trigger for sucking? If so, I can only do my best to comfort my son enough by day for him to give up the thumb by night. Maybe I should get a stress ball for him to squeeze in times of need. While I’m at it, maybe I’ll buy two. Like mother, like son.

Julie M. Green is a Toronto-based freelancer and mother of one.

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