QUESTION: I have a son who is 23-months-old
and still sucking his thumb. I would like to get him to stop. Can
you help me?
ANSWER: Sucking is a soothing activity
for babies and young children. Your son sucks his thumb because it
is a primary way that children of this age make themselves feel safe
and secure. If you do not want him to suck his thumb, perhaps you
could offer him a pacifier, even a bottle, a favorite blanket or a
toy to hold onto that offers him a sense of security and soothing.
These items are called "transitional" objects by child psychologists,
because they help a child internalize or replicate the love they feel
from their parents.
Be aware that boys are often shamed out of pacifiers,
or sucking of any kind, earlier than girls because it acknowledges
dependency. But boys, like girls, need soothing. And sucking is a
primary reflex that nature provides for both emotional and physical
(feeding) nourishment early in life. Frustrating his need to suck
can set him up for nail biting or other nervous habits later.
Your son's thumb sucking does not mean that he is
suffering undue insecurity. But denying him the ability to satisfy
his sucking needs may also prevent him from developing the capacity
to soothe himself. Still, it would not hurt to look at the bigger
picture to see if your son is in the midst of any transitions or situations
that might cause him to feel insecure.
Consider indulging your son's needs for sucking a
pacifier or having a bottle of juice once or twice during the day.
You may be surprised at how quickly he will be willing to relinquish
his thumb for a substitute. Do not worry, he will give up the pacifier
when he is ready. Three to four years of age is a common time for
sucking activity to subside and be replaced with other comforting
aids such as favorite toys, dolls or action figures.
There is always an overlap in the transition from
sucking to holding (toys) for soothing. So it is wise to identify
and encourage your child to adopt favorite toys that you know bring
him that special solace.
Sleeping with these comfort toys, and taking them
with him when he is separated from you, may reduce his need for sucking.
He may also benefit from increased daily cuddling when the opportunity
arises, such as when you are watching a video with him, or reading
a book together.
Rest assured, he will grow up soon enough! But remember
that none of us ever outgrows the need for soothing. This (sucking)
activity is an essential part of his development toward greater independence.
Successful self-soothing now is the foundation for enabling him to
cope with adversity later.