I’d like to look at an important distinction I observe about thumb-sucking. This comes from my experience so far both as an Infant Developmental Movement Educator and as Nanny using Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting.
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, it generally doesn’t extend beyond babyhood. 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 squirm: mouthing can get the entire digestive system revving! This kind of mouthing is calming and grounding (it stimulates the inward, organ-monitoring Parasympathetic Nervous System rather than the outward sensing/motoring Sympathetic Nervous System).
Mouthing, along with efficient nursing, helps to organize the movement of the head, neck, and jaw. It also supports self-feeding later. And a fun fact: mouthing helps to 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
This sucking does not tend to engage the whole body in a cellular wake-up dance like mouthing. It is more passive and is employed at times of upset or can become constant.
This is the emotion-stopper. This baby may seem calm or independent, but he is most likely feeling some recent or pent-up emotion and holding it in rather than expressing it. Crying is physically and emotionally healing! He may not feel safe to cry, so his thumb can allow him to repress what he is feeling. 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”).
Telling the Difference
Mouthing can indeed 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 a blank look in her eyes? Does he focus on sucking or play with something else at the same time?
- Does sucking involve just the thumb always, or at times the other fingers, fist, toys, or clothing?
There are some cases in which I feel extra sucking can be healing–in conjunction with an understanding of emotional support. For babies with “special needs” or medical needs, please consult with professionals.
© Elizabeth Parker 2011, All Rights Reserved (Links are welcome. If you’d like to share my post in your blog or materials, please ask permission.)
Much of my work comes from Infant Developmental Movement Education®, part of the Body-Mind Centering® Approach to Somatic Education, and Dr. Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting. I am a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator®, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, Feldenkrais® Practitioner, and Spiritual Counselor.