Seven and still sucking his thumb

By Daisy Alpert Florin

The baby comes out of the womb ready to suck, its tiny, toothless mouth as powerful as a Hoover and, more often than not, clamped onto your nipple. In the early days of new motherhood, I prayed my babies would find something— anything—to suck that wasn’t attached to my body. So when Oliver, my youngest, found his thumb, I collapsed with relief and exhaustion. “Be careful,” my mother-in-law told me, “the thumb is harder to take away than the pacifier.” Whatever, I thought, adding that to the long list of things I would worry about later.

Seven years on, Oliver’s still a sucker, thumb mostly, but also occasionally sleeves, zippers, the pointed snout of a stuffed animal. He always sucks with “Tiny,” his baby blanket, held close to his nose; sucking and Tiny go together like peanut butter and jelly. Unlike my two older children, who were loyal only to their pacifiers, Oliver’s an equal opportunity sucker, but his thumb is his favorite. We used to call his thumb “weirdo finger,” and it was weird: misshapen, shriveled, discolored, it looked like something left in the water for too long. When he was little—two or three—the difficulty with which he pronounced the word “weirdo” was so endearing I made him repeat it over and over again. “What’s that finger called?” I’d ask. “Weed-o,” he would say. “What?” “Weed-o.”

The instinct to suck is a natural one, something infants are preprogrammed to do for survival. And most experts agree that thumb and finger sucking is an appropriate self-soothing behavior for very young children. But after the age of five, at which point only one in five children is still sucking, steps can—and many believe should—be taken to break the habit. There are the obvious dental concerns but also, once children enter middle childhood, sucking no longer serves a purpose: older children only suck because they’re bored or because it’s a habit they just can’t break. According to one expert, pediatrician Linda Goldstein, “Most kids over six really do want to stop, but they need some extra help.”

I certainly did. I sucked my thumb until I was nine, at which point my mother was fed up. The catalyzing moment was a trip to visit her family in Sweden. “I don’t want you sucking your thumb when we go home,” she told me. Like Oliver, my sucking went hand-in-hand with a ratty baby blanket held to my face. My mother presented a plan by which she would cut the blanket into smaller and smaller squares in the weeks leading up to the trip until it was nothing more than a scrap, at which time, she hoped, the habit would be broken. I agreed to the terms, and it worked: on the morning of the trip, I handed the blanket to my mother on our way out the door and never sucked again.

I’m not sure how my mother came up with that particular plan, but Google “thumb sucking” and you’ll get plenty of suggestions. There are cloth “thumbguards” for sale on Etsy, fabric slings that sheath the thumb in a kind of digit sarong. Silicon versions work by eliminating the suction that makes sucking pleasurable and “breaks the habit in about 1-3 weeks.” For a quicker fix, you could try Thum, a bitter-tasting nail polish that is applied to the nail or tip of the thumb.

I’ve gone down the intervention road before, with mixed success. When my oldest son, Sam, was three, I decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that it was time for him to get rid of his pacifier, or “fuzz” as he called it. “Aren’t you a big boy now?” I asked him, and he kind of agreed, although I didn’t leave much room for dissent. One night, we put his pacifiers in a box along with a note that said, “Dear Fuzz Fairy, I don’t need these anymore because I’m a big boy now!” In exchange, he received a Go Diego Go! dump truck. Sam was excited about the change at first but after a few days, he seemed altered, sad, like a blanket of seriousness had been draped over his thin shoulders. When I told his preschool teacher that Sam might be a little low-key because we had taken away his pacifiers, she asked, “Why?” And since I honestly had no idea, I went home and gave them back to Sam. “The Fuzz Fairy told me she made a mistake.”

“Do you want to stop sucking your thumb?” I ask Oliver one day after school. “And do you need my help?” I had just read that sucking your thumb past kindergarten could cause “social difficulties” for a child because by that age, according to Dr. Goldstein, “kids don’t want to play or sit next to a child who’s a thumb-sucker.” (Why Oliver would even want to sit next to creeps like that, Dr. Goldstein doesn’t say.) Maybe it was something Oliver wanted to stop doing and didn’t know how. And maybe I was allowing it to go on because, on some level, I liked seeing my last baby still latched on in this most primal way.

“No,” he says, settling down on the couch with Tiny for a nice, long after school suck. “Most of my friends don’t know I do it.” Then he pulls me close and whispers, “David sometimes sucks his middle finger.” And he lifts his hand to his mouth to demonstrate.

I snuggle up next to him and wonder if we’re ever too old for self-soothing. Meditation, spa days, People magazine… Aren’t we always looking for ways to chill out and relax? And I’m supposed to take my son’s favorite habit—one he will in all likelihood outgrow on his own—away from him? I inhale the scent of my youngest son, his body lax with comfort, and add sucking to the list of things to worry about never.

AUTHOR’S UPDATE: It’s been more than two years since I wrote this essay and Oliver has remained a thumbsucker until last month, when the looming threat of orthodontics forced us to reconsider the habit. Truthfully, I was kind of ready for it to end. His face and hands were red and chapped from all the saliva. Tiny, his blanket, started smelling really (really) bad and sometimes, Oliver didn’t smell that good either. All of which is to say, it felt like it was time.

Oliver understood the palate expander he was getting in December would mean the end of thumb sucking as he knew it. He wasn’t too happy about that, until we sweetened the deal by promising him a snazzy new tablet (whatever, it was better than a rabbit). In the days leading up to his appointment, he tried falling asleep without his thumb and, after a couple of failed attempts, finally did it. How, I asked in the morning? By using what he describes as a “life hack.” “I hold Tiny with both hands so my hands having something to do and I don’t suck.” In the end, it seemed Tiny was the magic ingredient, not the thumb. I think we were all a little surprised at how quick and easy it was. 

As I said in the original essay, I always worry that these small breaks from childhood will harden Oliver, turn him into some wisecracking tween before I’m ready. But, at 9.5, he is who he’s always been: silly, sweet, affectionate—and a little bit of a baby. I don’t know if he ever would have stopped sucking his thumb on his own, or if I would have insisted on it. Two years later, I still have no problem with thumb sucking. Long may it reign.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer, editor, mom of three and recovering thumb sucker. Read more at