Thumb-Sucking for Movement Integration or Emotional Comfort?

I’d like to look at an important distinction I observe about thumb-sucking. This comes from my experience as both an Infant Developmental Movement Educator and Aware Parenting Instructor.

I see two different arenas of so-labeled “thumb-sucking”: one offers benefits to physical health and the other offer challenges to emotional health. (But really, we are whole people!)

Sucking for Movement Integration

This sucking I will switch to calling “mouthing.” For typically-progressing children, this doesn’t extend beyond babyhood (mouthing the hands as young babies and mouthing toys/objects as middle/older babies). There’s a high number of nerve endings in the mouth, and it’s like another sensory limb for babies, another way they sense and learn about their world. It often involves all the fingers or fist; which means that it can involve the thumb alone–and here is where it can cross over into the sucking described below.

But back to mouthing: think of a young baby ‘mouthing’ her fist while snuggled in your arms or on her tummy. As she aims her hand to her mouth, she is also measuring–getting an internal sense of her own body in relation to itself. Sometimes she will wriggle from her head all the way down to her ‘tail’: mouthing can get the entire digestive system revving! This kind of mouthing is calming and grounding because it tones the organs (it stimulates the inward, organ-monitoring Parasympathetic Nervous System rather than the outward sensing/motoring Sympathetic Nervous System).

Mouthing, along with efficient nursing or bottle feeding, helps to organize the movement of the head, neck, and jaw. It also supports self-feeding later by building hand-to-mouth coordination. And a fun fact: mouthing can help stimulate the thumb’s journey out of the little tiny baby fist!

(See also my “Hand To Mouth” post for a related topic)

Sucking to Stop Emotion

Let’s look now at a very different sucking of thumb. This is the more classic image: Baby hangin’ out with his thumb!

This type of sucking does not tend to engage the whole body in a cellular wake-up dance like mouthing. It’s more passive and used at times of upset or can become a habit on autopilot.

This is the emotion-stopper. This baby may seem calm or independent, but he is most likely feeling some recent or old pent-up emotion and holding it in rather than expressing it. Here’s the question to be curious about: what would he do if he weren’t sucking his thumb? Many parents either aren’t sure or say “he’d cry!” Crying releases the held-in feelings behind this thumb. It’s physically and emotionally healing! Baby may not feel safe to cry, or you may not have been aware of this need, so his thumb is a way for him to stop himself from crying. But please don’t pull his thumb out of his mouth! For much more in-depth information about supporting this baby, please see Aletha Solter’s books, including “The Aware Baby” or we can work together in person or online in a consultation).

Telling the Difference

Mouthing can also turn into emotion-stopping sucking! Here are some clues to begin deciphering them:

  • Does Baby’s sucking engage her whole body or seem automatic?
  • When something stressful happens, does Baby let out his cry or suck his thumb?
  • Does Baby seem engaged in sucking as an activity or does she have either a blank or concerned look in her eyes? Does he focus on sucking or play with something else at the same time?
  • Does her sucking involve only the thumb as a habit, or at times the other fingers, fist, toys, or clothing in exploration?

There are some cases in which I’ve noticed extra sucking can be healing–in conjunction with an understanding of emotional support. It can also be an indication of a small bone of the palate or skull slightly out of place, as their attempt to self-adjust. For babies with medical needs, please consult with professionals.

© Elizabeth Parker 2012, All Rights Reserved, links welcome

Eliza Parker is a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator® (work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen), Aware Parenting Instructor (Aletha Solter, Ph.D), Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, and trained Feldenkrais® Practitioner.

About Eliza Parker

A certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator, Aware Parenting Instructor, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, spiritual counselor, and trained Feldenkrais® practitioner, Eliza respects babies as whole people who enter the world knowing how to communicate, learn, and self-heal. Her Conscious Baby practice employs a unique approach to natural “I can do it myself” milestone development and attunement to non-verbal cues and crying. Eliza’s life-changing perspectives and respectful solutions toward common parenting questions transcend “typical” parenting advice. Her work addresses babies on the “well baby” spectrum and those experiencing challenges such as motor delay, difficulty in tummy time, and hip dysplasia.

15 Comments

  1. Hallo,
    I found this article great! We ( me and me husband )have read the book from Althea Solter. My baby is 5 month old and since a month he don’t won’t to cry anymore with me, he just cry with his father at weekends.
    During the day I realize many times that he is very stressful, I take him in my arms and he start to be like aggressive, he take my hare, my face and even bites me, I try to be calm and I speak with him and I said that he have to be relax and that I understand him… And then he stop to doing this and he start to sucking his thumb, and sometimes all his fingers. After that he sleeps. I don’t know what I am doing wrong… Who do I have to react when after I spoke, he still suck his finger? I am the person who is with him 95% of the time. He’s also learning to crawl and we practice with him natural hygiene which can be sometimes very stressful for both.
    Any tips?
    Thanks!

    • Hello, have you tried saying to him “it’s okay to cry, I hear you, what is it?, I’m listening, I love you” (etcetera)? I’d want to talk with you more in a Skype session before giving any other suggestions, to know more about what you’re already doing, what’s going on in his life, etc. Sometimes there are many layers, and sometimes it is difficult to sort out by yourself, especially when there may already be particular habits in place.

  2. It’s interesting to me to hear the two of you discussing this. How broad things are… even in the natural / gentle parenting world, there are different perspectives and approaches and even disagreements that can be handled graciously and that can open windows to the observers (as well as the participants).

    My daughter’s thumb-sucking strikes me as mostly a connecting-with-self thing — a being in tune with herself, a speaking of love to herself, a nurturing of herself. I think that’s a good thing.

    I know that I have not fostered absolutely free and open communication, nor modeled it — but on the other hand I’ve made great strides in that direction, and I think maybe it’s good enough for now, and that we will continue to have opportunities to work through it, separately as well as together.

  3. ooops- that would be “in drawing any quick conclusions (not solutions!).

    • Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for your response. I do hear you in everything you are sharing, and especially the coming from strength and compassion. At this point in time, I do feel differently about where the need to self-regulate (in the sense it’s usually meant) comes from in the first place and how the ability to off-load at another time is affected. However, I agree that children do need to and will develop whatever they need to take care of themselves given their environments.

      There is a lot of openness, but also a lot of shut-down-ness in our society. This post is not meant to blame; but I have seen a different way possible to be in the world.

  4. Hi Eliza,

    I’m a RIE Associate (and a colleague of Janet Lansbury’s), which is how I found your blog. I’m very familiar with Aletha Solter’s books and The Aware Parenting Approach, and I agree with you that babies and children should be listened to, and not distracted from their feelings. Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach emphasizes listening, sensitive observation, and allowing even very young babies the opportunity for full expression of their emotions- thus my comment about not using the breast, bottle, or pacifier to soothe (or quiet) a crying baby. But the other side of this coin is that children are resilient and have the ability to develop self soothing skills, and I don’t think this is a bad thing, or something to be discouraged. If a child is using her thumb to self regulate, who am I to decide that she’s “stifling” her expression of emotions and needs to express them more? I feel like there’s got to be a balance, and we’ve got to trust children. Also, there’s a need to recognize that parents, caregivers, and teachers are not therapists, and we don’t live in a perfect world. Even the most mindful adult may sometimes be less sensitive than is ideal, and it’s possible a child might stifle an emotion, but if the parenting (care-giving) is generally sensitive, and usually allows for expression of emotion, the child will not be harmed, and will “off load” the emotions at another time. In my work with parents, I encourage them to relax and enjoy their babies, and to focus on all the positive things the babies are doing. I tend to come from a strength based perspective, because in my experience, most parents today are overly stressed and anxious, and get so many messages about what they are doing wrong, and what they should be doing better to ensure that their children are happy and healthy I’m not dismissing your theory, and I think that professionals should pay attention to every aspect of a child’s demeanor and behavior, and it’s true that there are times when (taking into consideration all aspects of the whole child), thumb sucking might be a cause for concern- but in general, I don’t look at a child who is sucking their thumb for comfort, and think, “Oh, there’s a child who is stifling their emotions,” and I’m just advocating for caution in drawing any quick solutions. I would not suggest to a parent that a child’s thumb sucking was cause for concern unless I had an ongoing relationship with child and parent, and intimate knowledge of the child’s behavior, relationship patterns, and patterns of communication across time and in a variety of settings.

  5. Interesting. I’m not sure what I think of this. In general, I don’t think it’s a problem for young children to suck their thumbs for comfort and self soothing. After all, they are in control of their thumbs.(What I object to is adults offering breast, bottle, or pacifier, when it’s clear baby/child is crying to express feelings and is not crying from hunger. This sets up the conditions for “control patterns.”) All children experience times of upset, and certainly, it’s important for them to be able to express their emotions, but part of healthy development is also learning to calm down, and self soothe, or take care of oneself in the face of strong emotions.I think in general we can trust children to cry and express feelings when they need to, and we don’t have to worry too much about children suppressing feelings (or the expression of feelings), especially if they are being raised and cared for in generally nurturing environments by sensitive, responsive adults. I don’t think we have to necessarily go looking for problems, or pathologizing behavior. all of the time. It seems too much like projection to me.

    • Hello,
      Babies and children do start out crying and expressing feelings when they need to; however, they are often (even if lovingly) distracted, prevented, or not taken seriously. They are in control of their thumbs; but often we are not aware of ways we or they may be stifling communication. Have you tried the Aware Parenting approach? Best, as with anything: get more info, try it for yourself, and witness what happens!

  6. OMG thank goodness for this article! Not so much distinguishing between the two (I figured when my daughter discovered her thumb and fingers it was all fine)…but in trying to understand why she enjoys sucking her thumb so much. I appreciate this!!

  7. Is there really something wrong with sometimes vegging out with the thumb? I wouldn’t want to see it as the only response to feelings… but it seems there should be space for spacing out sometimes, no?

    • Hi Marcy,
      Indeed, options are good! We do what is needed for our safety in different conditions/environments… Here’s my post from fb:

      Best: try the approach I reference and judge for yourself—it is a different approach than many of us grew up with, and it makes much more sense experienced than intellectualized. I say this respectfully, but as a society/culture (American, at least), most of us don’t know what it’s like to NOT be holding in emotion, so this is our gauge and what we perceive as ‘normal.’

      What I’ve seen in working with *healthy/typical* babies and adults is that the need to “space out” or “self-soothe” (I mean this as different than wanting to ‘let loose’, get our minds off of something, or relax) goes hand-in-hand with holding emotions in. If we need a getaway in this sense, this is fine, and is how we cope. It is normal to have stresses/emotions, and the fact that this is present in a child does not mean there is something wrong with child or parent. However, I truly have seen that babies/children who are not holding in pent up emotion don’t have this same need to “cope” or learn how to soothe because they are naturally at peace and handle the ebb and flow of life in-the-moment rather than bury.

      Yes, sucking is very calming, but it can also become a “control pattern”. And yes, there are some instances in which I see extra sucking is healing if it’s not a control pattern. It’s not about labeling right/wrong or implying psychological problems; but recognizing that sometimes what looks like a self-soothing “skill” is actually allowing us/them not to feel or express. It’s not just that a child cries; it’s the quality of attention and listening we give, if we’re open to their full expression, if they’re able to fully release (and we often aren’t aware where we might be shutting down communication). This is not to blame, it’s a call to awareness! Combine this with the suggestions around milestones such as in Janet’s ‘Walking’ post, and we have some empowered kids!

  8. Elizabeth ~ I have a picture of my daughter mouthing a few fingers, but not of her entire fist. Let me know if you want to use it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *