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Toddler Tips

Thumb-sucking

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 11 No. 3, May-June 1994, pp. 92-93

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Situation

My daughter is almost four years old and still sucks her thumb. Even though she has nursed on demand since birth and still nurses frequently, she will suck her thumb when she is tired or nervous. I am feeling very inadequate as a mother, and her thumb-sucking is very annoying. What should I do?

Response

I was a thumb-sucker as a child and I feel very lucky that my parents never pushed me to stop. I gave it up quite easily on my own around age five or six.

During the past two years, I've come to know fifty or more children at my son's preschool and a number of them have been thumb-suckers. They've ranged from very quiet and sensitive two-year-olds to outgoing and cheerful five-year-olds. A child's thumb-sucking is in no way a negative reflection of his or her mother's parenting skills. On the contrary, you should feel proud that you love and respect your child enough to disregard the opinion of others who don't know your child as you do. Meanwhile, enjoy this gentle reminder that, for now, she is still not quite ready to grow up.

Nina Freeman
Arlington, Virginia, USA

Response

There is really nothing unusual about a tired or nervous preschooler sucking her thumb. I am glad that you are sensitive to your child's needs and still enjoy a nursing relationship with her. It is important to realize that thumb-sucking is a great comfort to your child.

The middle of our five children was our only thumb-sucker. She was born with a sucking callus on her right thumb. She sucked her thumb almost non-stop from birth--even while nursing! It never occurred to me to feel inadequate, and our dentist assured us that our daughter's dental development would not be impaired. We learned to ignore casual shoppers who stared at that "big girl" with a thumb in her mouth. She weaned herself when she was nearly two years old and decided to stop sucking her thumb as well.

One of my cousins still sucked his thumb when he was shipped to war in Vietnam! He gave that up in the foxhole, but came home smoking a pipe!

Beverly M. O. Kirk
Chugiak, Alaska, USA

Response

My eight-year-old daughter put her thumb in her mouth the minute she was born and has continued to enjoy the comfort of her thumb. Often I am her only advocate when others criticize this habit that is so much a part of her life. Comments from others have certainly made me feel guilty about not putting an end to this "baby habit." Then I remember that every milestone in her life has been at her own pace and that thumb-sucking will stop when she is ready. We have worked on sucking her thumb only in socially acceptable places, so she doesn't have to deal with teasing. Distraction works well if someone is around whose comments I don't want to deal with. At times it's annoying when the sucking is loud. I then give my daughter the choice of sucking quietly or going elsewhere. When the issue of stopping has been pushed on her she only sucks longer and more frequently. In order to help her toward weaning from her thumb, she now must be sitting or lying down when she sucks her thumb. She has chosen a camera as her weaning-from-the-thumb gift and now talks about when she plans to stop. Gradually and with love, I am helping her toward this goal.

Lori Bryan
Lodi, California, USA

Response

My daughter, Sarah, is just four years old and, like your daughter, has nursed on demand and also sucked her thumb since birth. I even have a picture of Sarah, just minutes old, sucking her thumb. She still nurses and still sucks her thumb. She also chews on clothes, toys, and sucks in her sleep. Sarah is extremely bright, self-confident, and independent. I credit this to the fact that her needs have been met in a manner that she prefers.

I believe that Sarah has a strong need to suck that is met in a variety of ways. Rather than feeling inadequate, I'm proud to be meeting her needs, whether it be through nursing or allowing the thumb-sucking. I believe that just as she will wean from the breast when she is ready, so will she give up her thumb when she is comfortable doing so.

I don't mention Sarah's thumb-sucking to her (or to others in her presence) because I want it to be an emotionally neutral habit. It is important to realize that just as society has random standards that limit the age at which it is acceptable for a child to continue to nurse, so are there narrow ideas regarding thumb-sucking. The needs of the child are rarely a primary consideration. Be assured that even though it is annoying to you, thumb-sucking meets a need and helps your daughter comfort herself.

Even though most babies who are exclusively breastfed do not suck their thumbs, a small percentage do. Our daughters fall into this category. We do them a great service by weaning them gradually, with love, not only from the breast but from their thumbs, as well.

Barbara Leopold
Woodmere, New York, USA

Response

I always viewed the end of thumb-sucking, or even the use of a pacifier, in much the same way as I view weaning from the breast. It obviously was meeting some need or pleasure, and I trusted my children to know when they were "full." We all choose an outlet for the stress we feel, and assuming your daughter's tired and nervous times are no more frequent or intense than normal, it appears that she's found her outlet. Is nail-biting or hair-chewing any more respectable than thumb-sucking?

I encourage you not to feel inadequate; no one feels inadequate when their nursing child snuggles a stuffed animal or blanket. I was fortunate to have a supportive friend who saw no problem with my children's habit. I hope you, too, can find someone to support you and your daughter.

My orthodontist told me (only somewhat in jest) that it was better to spend $2,000 on braces than $10,000 on therapy. If nothing else, please know that you are not alone. My son nursed until he was three years old and also enjoyed a pacifier until he was four. My nearly four-year-old daughter shows no signs of giving up either one anytime soon. They all give these things up eventually.

Sharon Lubin
Redondo Beach, California, USA

Last updated Tuesday, October 17, 2006 by njb.
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