|Subject: Mom offended by comment on
I was very offended by [the article] "A Baby Cries: How Should Parents
Respond?" My six-month-old-son is rarely out of my arms and is
never left to cry. However, he does suck his thumb and fist and anything
else, because he is teething. People who do not know me or my family are
amazed at how wonderful my son acts. I hope your column did not give
parenting complexes to those somewhat insecure parents.
Thank you for writing. I welcome all letters and perspectives on
these important issues. I'm sorry that my advice distressed you. You are
to be commended for being so responsive and caring toward your child.
Thumb-sucking is not usually considered by early childhood
professionals to be related to teething (which is more likely to be
associated with biting and chewing behaviors). Of course, all of the
self-satisfying behaviors mentioned in the article can be related to
temporary physical conditions (such as earache-induced head banging),
but if the child is left alone when exhibiting these behaviors, they can
become self-comforters in future times of stress. If that happens, the
child is less likely to turn to parents for help, and this can interfere
with parent-child bonding. When a child is self-comforting, the danger
is that the parent will not see the underlying need. Just because a
child is attempting to comfort himself without crying does not mean that
the need is being met in the best way, or that he does not still need
parental attention and assistance.
It can be difficult for a baby to get sucking needs met through
bottle-feeding, because there can be less touching and the time spent
sucking is so short. In certain circumstances, even breastfeeding babies
may suck their thumb, indicating their sucking need is not being fully
met at that particular time. (In most cultures, mothers nurse on one
side per feeding - this is a better approach because it allows
sufficient sucking without overfeeding. If the baby still fusses after
nursing, he/she should be put on the emptier side to meet the need for
more sucking.) The need for sucking can vary from one child to another -
and for the same child from one time to another. It can be greater than
the parents assume - and much greater than our society assumes. A sudden
increase in sucking and nursing may be related to growth spurts around
the ages of 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months.
Regardless of the cause, self-comforting behaviors are a signal that
there is an important unmet need. It may be the original, primary need
(comfort from an earache or the need to suck) or it may be a secondary
need (representing previously learned self-comforting) during stressful
times, but self-satisfying always suggests a need that is not being
fully met in the way nature meant it to be.
Self-comforting is not an indication of independence but instead
suggests a dependent need that has become overlooked. There are very few
parents who have not been misled by society's overemphasis on
independence. The truth is that infants are simply not capable of
meeting their own needs. Unfortunately, parents in our society seldom
receive the critical information they need.
Thank you for bringing my attention to the need for clarifying this