Good Grief–In Which I Address Thumbsucking and Other Forms of Comfort

Dear Lily June,

If ever you needed proof that we come from monkeys, here it is, kid. When I was looking up information about babbling to write your letter about how you’ve started vocalizing, I was interested to find that humans are not the only species who babble. In fact, in addition to songbirds and sac-winged bats, one of the cutest, and smallest, of the primate kingdom actually learns to “talk” by babbling, too: the pygmy marmoset.

I’d pay good money to hear you and this little fellow engaged in a babbling back-and-forth.

Now that I’ve looked up a little bit about your other favorite hobby, thumb-sucking, I’m not surprised to learn that chimpanzees do the same thing (along with ring-tailed lemurs and other primates, so you’re in good company).

You look great in this mother-daughter portrait, but I feel like I was having a bad hair day, Lily.

While humankind tends to forget its connection with the animal world, it’s true that we are all linked and so similar, it’s sometimes scary. (Check out your mother in the morning, Lily, and you’ll see that my frizzy mane recalls stately lions; check out your dad’s beard some evenings, and you might think he’s part tamarin.)

Now THAT’s what I call a five o’clock shadow!

But aside from the hair, what we share with all animals is a primal instinct towards fear and a need to be comforted. So I’m definitely not surprised that you’ve taken to jamming your thumb in your mouth and going to town like you’re slurping down the world’s thickest milkshake through a straw the size of a coffee stirrer.

It’s a pretty cute habit until the sucking sound wakes me up at 2:30 in the morning (as it did today), and I find your sleeve covered in drool that could make a bloodhound jealous. Then it’s just downright adorable.


You’re in good company. Aside from the primates (or in addition to them?), your Aunt Loren sucked her thumb well past the typical point in a child’s life (it usually peaks at two and is gone by five), so much so that her first grade teacher called her “Pinky.”

Confused? So was I, until your Grandma Raelyn explained to me that it’s because she sucked her thumb until it grew a little pink hump. (It’s still a confusing nickname.) Still, as she outgrew it, the little camel on her fattest digit drained dry, and now, you’d never know unless, as I just let you in on it, you were told. Feel free to taunt her mercilessly.

She’s lucky: My mother didn’t try any of the terrible tricks parents use to buck the habit. Against the advice of the American Dental Association, some parents have tried pouring bitterants (like lemon juice) or piquants (like hot sauce) on their children’s thumbs just to keep them from sucking.

Rest assured, your dad and I won’t do that to you, nor we will we re-implement the truly barbaric tactic of the 1950s: hay-rakes. (They were a set of spikes installed in the mouth meant to keep the sucker from getting any comfort.)

This torture device, called a hay-rake, would scrape at the thumbs of whoever innocently tried to suck. Just another sign of parental love from the 1950’s.

Then again, my sister’s also lucky she didn’t do permanent damage to her teeth, as too much thumb-sucking can affect the shape of oral cavities, alter your jawline, and really interrupt your bite. She’s never bit me, but I think I can safely assume my sister’s chompers are alright.


As all’s fair in love and war (and between siblings, there are always both simultaneously), I feel I should share that I had my own means of comfort that lasted far too long as well: carrying my “blankie.”

Like Linus from Peanuts* carried around his trusted friend, threatening to Charlie to turn it into a sport coat as he aged, my green, half-shredded scrap of childhood memories has followed me into my adult years and can still occasionally be found ruining the ambience of my adult bed.

I was sure, for the longest time as a child, that if I threw it over my head, I became invisible. I don’t know that I tried to get away with anything in this state (for instance, I’m reasonably certain I never tried to “knock over” any banks), but I know that when things got “too heavy,” my trusty blankie was there so that I wouldn’t have to be. I would slip up under it quietly, and like the cloak from the Harry Potter books, it transformed me to transparent from opaque.

If I’d kept that habit, I might have never turned to cigarettes for comfort (though I’d have looked awfully strange, don’t you think, as a twenty-something walking around under a blanket like a makeshift apparition).


The psychologist Sigmund Freud, who was known for being a little bit wacky in his theories anyway, believed that all children pass through an oral stage (where you’re at right now, Lily).

In this stage, all of your physical pleasure derives from feeding. In some, like your mother or possibly Count Dracula, we stay in this phase and develop an unhealthy obsession with pleasures derived through the mouth (for instance, through coffee & cigarettes or blood respectively).

This is only “supposed to happen” if some trauma occurs in childhood during the first twenty-one or so months of your life, after which you should be entirely weaned from the bottle. I’m hoping the fact that the kibosh was put on breastfeeding for us won’t mean you suck your thumb until you’re thirty. I guess time will tell, and we’ll see.

In the meantime, though it looked cuter in pictures, you’ve kicked the “paci” to the curb to embrace your brand new love: your own thumb.

Its opposability is what makes us human (or at last part primate). Its ability to bend into a backwards letter C is what allows us to hitch-hike across the galaxy (or at least up and down the country, though if I catch you hitching, so help me…). It can pop up to express that you’re pleased or be held down to indicate what isn’t your cup of tea.

It’s a good first love, Lily. Until you’re five or so, you’ll get no opposition from me.

Though I will miss pictures like this, where the pacifier is so big against your little head, it’s like the paci is swallowing YOU!

*Note: Incidentally, it was actually Charles Schultz, the illustrator of the Peanuts comic strip, who first coined the term “security blanket.” Maybe you won’t, Lily, but I find that fascinating, just like I’m blown away that Shakespeare invented the word “bump!” Before that, what did things go ____ in the night?

Picture Credits:

10 thoughts on “Good Grief–In Which I Address Thumbsucking and Other Forms of Comfort

  1. originaltitle says:

    My daughter never liked the paci and only occasionally sucks her thumb which has made me her paci. I sincerely hope she will find another comfort mechanism as I will not be able to comfort her in this way until adulthood haha. She does, however, have the strange habit of holding onto a rail in her crib during her sleep. We wake up in the night and see her clutching onto her crib rail for dear life, still totally asleep. Or turning herself 90 degrees, kicking her legs up to the top of her crib and sleeping with her feet up. As soon as it’s safe to let her lovey into the crib, I hope she will cling to this softer comfort. Until then, I’m taking pictures of her monitor at night for posterity of her interesting sleeping gymnastics. Another great read. I had no idea that Chimpanzees sucked their thumbs, but I suppose I am not surprised. They are so much like us, or we are so much like them…Also, I’m now perpetually worried that I’m going to somehow traumatize my daughter in the next 15 months and keep her in a Freudian “oral” stage indefinitely. You have awakened my temporarily dormant mothering anxiety. Great post as always. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Her gymnastics sound impressive, but I’ll refrain from doing the typical “mothery thing” and saying maybe she’ll be a gymnast?! After all, if what babies did predicted their careers then I’d be a professional blanket wearer. And I’m not sure that would bring in enough money to support my “Lily,” who has taken the lazier approach to life. Unlike your little one who’s active even in her sleep, my LO sometimes falls asleep during “active” tummy time. Ah, so much like her mother that one.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. johnclamans says:

    Great entry! I also think it’s important not to “trick” the children out of thumb-sucking. To me that appears like an end-of-the-pipe solution that might lead to neurotic behavior later on. It’s always better to tackle the underlying reasons 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ellie P. says:

    Ahh yes, the ol’ oral security-blanket thing. Wasn’t a biggie with my daughter; her main attachment was to her actual “blankie”; but my other kid (son) did the thumb thing, and thus in later years helped a nice orthodontist buy a boat, golf-club membership and big-ass tractor-lawnmower. Just sayin’. (Oh, btw Alyssa, if you’re interested – and if you have any spare time left over from breastfeeding, cooking, cleaning, and most of all, bloggin’), you can go over and see how my daughter turned out. 😉 Her blog is at Have at it!) xox

    Liked by 1 person

  4. dearlilyjune says:

    I guess she was just Barbie’s best friend. (The little sister was Skipper.) And looking it up, I found out that she married “Alan,” not Ken. So I guess all’s well that ends well?


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