Thumb-Sucking – What to Know About Someones First Addiction

The last place you may think to look at to learn more about the science behind addiction is thumb-sucking babies.

Our First Addiction

Thumb and finger sucking doesn’t start as an addiction.  In fact, thumb-sucking is beneficial for early oral development. Research shows that non-nutritive sucking is a pain reliever and premature babies who suck their thumbs leave the hospital earlier compared to those who don’t.   Its soothing and pacifies the upset and unsettled baby, especially when its mother is not there.

Thumb sucking also helps aid digestion by regulating stomach movements, along with controlling breathing and heart rates.

When faced with new situations, thumb-sucking is a way for infants to calm down. This allows them to be independent for more extended periods. After infancy however, children develop other ways of coping, however some children become “addicted” to sucking.

Like a smoker lighting a cigarette or a drinker opening a bottle of beer, a toddler can deal with stress by thumb-sucking. However, just like the other harmful addictions, early benefits pave the way to problems.

From a short-term perspective, most addictions come with benefits. One of the main benefits, as previously mentioned, is addressing stress. Chronic stress can cause the body’s immune system to weaken, increasing the likelihood of a person becoming sick. What we know about this habit is that a feedback loop within the brain is created during sucking. Kids become addicted to the natural stress relievers, serotonin and dopamine that are released in the brain when sucking. This addiction to sucking may then continue into toddlerhood and beyond.

Freudian psychologists argue that, like cigarettes, thumb-sucking is an oral fixation. Adults calm themselves with a cigarette, and infants with their thumb.

For many, as a child grows and develops, this habit often slowly disappears. For those who don’t stop sucking, however, much like those who are addicted to substances today, early benefits have major impacts later.

Recovery from Addiction

What can people learn from thumb-sucking to help tackle the issue of addiction? Instead of inducing guilt, shame, and criticizing kids for their addiction, parents should take a softer approach.   We should look at triggers for the behaviour such as stress, health or sleep problems and try to address these prior to helping a child to give up their thumb or finger sucking habit.

In the end, children need support from their parents, friends, family and loved ones. Be persistent and be patient. The day will come when they will thank you with all their heart that you have been with them every step of the way.

We’re The Thumbsucking Clinic and we help families with thumb, finger and pacifier sucking habits– get in touch today to see how we can help!



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