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Parenting Advice Mom offended by comment on thumb-sucking


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.

Name Withheld

Jan's reply:

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 issue.


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