Thumb-sucking: An Aware Parenting Approach. Guest post by Dr Marion Rose

Thumb-sucking – An Aware Parenting Approach by Dr Marion Rose.

Dr Marion Rose

Dr Marion Rose

There are many different perspectives on thumb-sucking, and I’d love to share an Aware Parenting way of looking at it with you.

Before I start, I’d like to include a preface – that I long for deep self-acceptance for all of us parents. It is so easy for us to judge ourselves for things we have or haven’t done, and to judge other parents for their different parenting choices.

My intention is to go beyond judgments of ourselves, our children, and other parents – and to find deep compassion for us all instead.

We are travailing new paradigms of parenting, and we are all learning new ways of being.

My aim is to provide information, so that we can make choices that resonate with our values and what we feel in our heart.

My vision is for all parents to support, encourage and inspire each other; to celebrate all that we do, and to find acceptance and empathy for those times when we behave in ways we regret, or learn new things that we wish we had known when our children were younger.

We can only be where we are!

That said, let’s look at thumb-sucking.

All babies go through a developmental phase where they want to put everything in their mouths – to feel it, to sense it, to taste it.

There is a particular quality in this active mouthing – a quality of discovery, of curiosity, and of learning. When a baby is exploring the world in this way, she is alert and engaged – her eyes are available for connection and intimacy (into-me-see). She is taking in every bit of information about the world, she is feeling every nuance of whatever it is she is sucking. She takes in the information she receives and uses it to build her knowledge of the world. It is a sensual, active, connected experience.

She may also use sucking in a way that creates healing. She may use it in a particular way; still alert, still engaged, to create healing in the physical structure of her head. Babies heads get moulded as they are being born (if they are born vaginally), and sucking creates a very powerful force which can also create movement in the physical structures of the skull. Babies know what they need in order to heal, and they may use sucking to help that healing process. But still, healing is accompanied by a quality of alertness and concentration.

There is a different quality that can go with thumb/or finger-sucking – it might be very vigorous, but it is not exploratory. It has qualities that are the opposite – a sense of not exploring, but of turning within. Instead of being alert, if we offer eye contact, we might see that she looks a little bit ‘spaced out’ or disconnected. She doesn’t seem available for connection and intimacy. She does not seem alert, curious, learning, engaged, or connected.

So what is going on instead?

From an Aware Parenting perspective, babies have two reasons for crying. The first cause is to meet an immediate need – for closeness, for nourishment, to be seen, to be comfortable, for protection, for stimulation. When our baby is showing signs of any of these, it is important that we do our utmost to meet these needs. It is vital that we respond promptly and give the baby what she needs. Babies do not have a sense of time, so there is no such thing as, “just five minutes” for them – each moment of emotional or physical pain experienced alone feels like forever.

However, babies have another reason for crying, one that is still not widely understood or accepted. That is, they have feelings just like us adults, and they cry to express those feelings and to let go of overwhelm and release stress and trauma from their bodies.

Of course, for a baby, this crying needs to be done in the loving arms of someone who is listening empathically to their feelings, and who understands that they are expressing experiences they have had. Otherwise, how can she know, and we know, that the crying isn’t about an immediate need. One of the primary needs for babies is for touch and to be held. We always need to hold her when she is telling us about her feelings.

If we think about it, once a child can talk, and adults can talk, we still cry sometimes – when we are overwhelmed, when we are sad, when we have lost someone or something, and when our needs aren’t being met. Crying has an important function, even when we can express ourselves with words. With babies, things are a bit more challenging for us to differentiate, because they do not yet have words to express their needs. But like us, they do cry to express feelings and release those stress hormones from their bodies.

However, if we do not realise that babies have feelings to tell us about, and assume that all crying expresses an unmet need, of course we are going to do everything possible to stop the crying, assuming that then all needs have been met.

But what if we see crying in arms as meeting a need – to be heard, to be valued, to be accepted, to be understood, to be LOVED UNCONDITIONALLY, and to release stress from the body?

Just like weeing and pooing release things that we do not need, so does crying release what we do not need.

We understand that birth is a powerful experience for a mother, with strong sensations and feelings. Even if the birth is beautiful, most women need time afterwards to talk about the experience, to integrate it, to share it. And if the birth has not gone to plan and has been traumatic or unexpected, she will need to talk about it much more, and to cry, and to mourn, and to be heard, and to heal.

We are still learning about babies and what they experience. The work of pre-and peri-natal psychologists in the last 40 years shows us again and again that babies are sentient, alert, and aware; and are powerfully affected by experiences in the womb, during birth after birth.

So we know that babies will also have feelings if their time in utero did not go to plan; as well as about the birth, and of course, about coming into the world.

If you have ever read the work of Michel Odent, you will know that when babies are born, they are incredibly sensitive to how they are treated. Let’s assume too, that they are incredibly sensitive to their experience of being born. Imagine the forces and pressures on their little bodies whilst they are being born. Imagine how much they are affected by the feelings of their mother and of those around her. And once he is born, imagine the incredibly sensitive awareness he has – his skin has never felt the touch of air, his eyes have never experienced strong light, his lungs have never felt the sensation of air, his limbs have never felt the sensation of space and gravity, his digestion system has never felt the sense of lack, and he has been used to a fairly small range of movement and sensation.

What a massive change he goes through, in such a small time. And just as it may take a new mother months to adjust to her new role, to process her birth experience, so let us listen to what this experience might have been like for a baby. A baby has few cognitive skills at this time. He experiences every sensation fully, without censure, without protection, just feeling it all.

Might it not make sense that he needs to tell us about his experience too ~ to process it, to release it, to heal from it, especially if there was fear or stress or danger present?

Might it make sense that when he cries “for no reason”, especially at the end of the day, or at the same time as his birth, that he is trying to tell us about what it was like for him, and wants to process the experience, and release the feelings,tensions, and stresses from his little body?

And how about overwhelm? Have you ever been in a situation where you are in a new experience – for example, in a new job, or learning a new thing on your computer, or learning a new language, and you simply feel overwhelmed? Or maybe you’ve been to India for the first time and have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of sights, sounds, smells and experiences?

Might not your little baby, even if he is held close to you, experience life outside the womb as a little bit like that? Everything in the world is new to him. He has never heard a phone ringing, a car starting, a bird singing; has never felt the sensation of car seat fabric on his body or the quality of many people in a shop.

Might he not also need to process these feelings, and release the overwhelm from his body, through crying in our loving arms, with our unconditionally loving ears, as he lets it all out?

And how about frustration? Have you ever been trying to do something new – learning a musical instrument or learning a new computer program, and the learning curve is so steep that you feel full of frustration? Might not a baby feel similarly when she is learning the huge new skills that she is learning all the time – she is constantly at the edge of not-being-quite-able-to-do-something-yet, and longing and yearning to do it – reaching her hand to her mouth, learning to sit, to crawl, to walk, to talk. Might not she experience high levels of frustration – frustration that she wants to release through telling us about it – through crying in our arms and re-enacting movements which were frustrating to her?

And might he not experience many other feelings, just as we do? Fear when he is not responded to quickly? Confusion when his needs are not understood? Might he not pick up every feeling of the people around him? Grief if he was left alone after birth? Shock if he hears a sudden loud noise? And so on, and so on…..

But does it really matter if we don’t listen to our baby’s feelings, and stop his feelings, through breast-feeding or bottle-feeding for comfort, through jiggling, through rocking, through wearing in a sling, through distracting him, moving his position, singing to him, telling him to shhhh, and all the many many things that are done to babies to stop the crying?

And this is where the no judgment part comes in.

The question that comes before this is ~ have you even once in your life, been held in the loving arms of someone who is deeply comfortable with your feelings? Have you ever been held as you cry and cry and cry, until you have released every bit of that experience, until you return to a sense of peace, and self-connection? Until your eyes can see so clearly, until you feel deep spaciousness in your chest, and openness, and love?

If we have never, or rarely, experienced something like this, it is going to be very hard for us to do it for our babies. If we do not know the beauty of this experience, it is going to be hard for us to trust, from deep within, that being held as we cry, when all our immediate needs are met, is an amazingly powerful healing experience.

We also live in a culture that, despite the developments of the last 40 years in understanding feelings and healing, is still set up to avoid every uncomfortable feeling. Our whole modern culture is based upon the belief that there is something wrong with us, and that every discomfort needs to be avoided through shopping, food, devices, distraction, and things to make us feel differently – whether it be coffee, alcohol, or stronger stimulants.

So, let’s hold in mind that our culture, our life experiences, and our core beliefs, play a huge rule in how we respond to our baby when all his immediate needs are met and he starts to look agitated or starts crying.

Given the culture we live in, the fact that we have probably never been held as we cry, and the prevailing view that all crying indicates an immediate need, it makes every sense that we will do something to stop the crying.

That we will feed our baby even though we have only just given him a feed. That we will move his position, or show
him something, or start to rock him or jiggle him, or will quickly wrap him up in a sling and get moving. Or we will sing to him, or shh… him, or will do everything we can to get him to sleep.

What often happens in this moment is all the feelings that we are holding down, through distracting ourselves, getting busy, eating for comfort, and so on, also start to arise. So not only are we trying to stop our baby’s feelings, we are also trying to stop ourselves from feeling our own feelings.

But what has all of this got to do with thumb-sucking, you ask?

Well, from an Aware Parenting perspective, whenever we distract our baby from a feeling, we do not actually make that feeling go away. Since feelings are physiological things that have physiological components, when we repress them, those physiological components stay in the body. The hormones, the feeling, and the physical component that would have gone with that feeling, all need to be held in.

So the baby needs to do something with her body in order to hold that in. Instead of opening her mouth and crying, whilst she kicks her legs and arches her back, as she heals from the birth experience, she needs to tighten the muscles of her mouth, and tense up the muscles in her legs and back that would have released.

And this happens over and over again, every time that we short-circuit the healing process of crying in arms.

And what happens is, over time, each short-circuit builds upon the next one. One holding in gets added to another and another and another. One tensing up of a muscle gets added to another and another and another. Our baby needs to start holding in, tensing up, clamping down, instead of releasing, moving, freeing up and letting out.

And thumb-sucking of that non-exploratory type is one of the ways that babies use to do that tensing up. There are
many others, but that is just one of them.

So, whenever a feeling arises that we have not been comfortable with, he represses it. Sucking creates a powerful form of dissociation. Try it out for yourself for a few minutes. Put your thumb in your mouth and suck consistently. How do you feel? The sensation is so all-consuming, that it is hard to feel anything else.

So, sucking helps the baby not feel the feelings that we are uncomfortable with. For that time, he is in a kind of trance, not feeling the uncomfortable feelings, not feeling what is within him, but also not really available to receive information from outside either.

So, whilst it helps him disconnect from the discomfort, it means that he does not really feel connected with himself or with those around him. He is blocking the channel of communication from within, which means also blocking the channel of information that comes from outside himself. He is in a kind of trance.

And you might be familiar with the sensations of that trance in yourself. Perhaps when you hop on Facebook for a few minutes and find that an hour has gone by, and you had no awareness that you were hungry, or that it got dark outside. Or perhaps you’ve eaten a whole bar of chocolate, and for that time, and for sometime afterwards, you couldn’t feel the ache in your heart.

So, if you have done this with your baby, please hold yourself with compassion right now. 99.999999% of the world does not understand that babies have feelings, and that babies can express those feelings and release them through crying in our arms when all their immediate needs are met.

You probably were never held as a baby as you cried and raged about your birth, or what happened for you in those early weeks, without being fed or distracted or jiggled.

And you live in a culture which is based on the core belief that uncomfortable feelings mean that there is something wrong with us, and need to be repressed at all costs.

And I want to let you know another thing. Just as it is never too late for us to heal, as adults, so it is never too late for us to start listening to the feelings of our baby or child.

We come into the world with these amazing healing mechanisms – to heal from uncomfortable feelings, stress and trauma, through crying, raging, tantrums, shaking, sweating, talking and playing.

And just as we keep trying to heal, by re-creating experiences of our early lives again and again so that we can heal (amongst many other ways), so does your baby or child keep trying to express his feelings.

When we understand the healing power of tears, our eyes are opened, and we have all kinds of new possibilities.

And most of the things that parents find most challenging about parenting – frequent night waking, challenges going
to sleep, early waking, avoiding eye contact, restlessness, agitation (in babies) and lack of cooperation, hitting, biting, not being able to sit still or concentrate, sibling rivalry, and so on ~ from an Aware Parenting perspective, simply indicate an accumulation of uncomfortable feelings. Holding in uncomfortable feelings feels uncomfortable, and makes it hard to sleep, to feel relaxed, to feel present and at home in one’s body.

Giving our baby the opportunity to cry in our arms when we are confident that all her needs are met, sitting right close to our toddler as she has a big tantrum, and listening to our teenager as she cries about not being able to do her maths homework – all these help her release those uncomfortable feelings from her body. The more she lets out, the more she can return to her natural state – aware, alert, curious, happy, loving, joyfully connected and wanting to contribute, wanting to learn, able to rest and relax.

Just as we feel when we cry with our best friend about how hard it can be as a parent – and then again we feel filled with love for our baby, and are ready to do whatever is required.

If any of this resonates with you, and you want to learn more about how to understand when your baby has feelings to release and how to differentiate that from when she has an immediate need that requires fulfilling, as well as how to help her sleep and be securely attached, and many other things, I recommend looking at Aware Parenting, which is Aletha Solter’s website (she created Aware Parenting). I also highly recommend her book (one of five), The Aware Baby. And I have lots of articles about Aware Parenting on my website – Marion Rose.

And most of all, give yourself plenty of empathy and compassion. Being a parent requires a huge amount from us – and most particularly, our children keep inspiring us to grow and learn and explore uncharted territory in ourselves, so that we can give them what they need. Let’s free ourselves from guilt – that out-dated mechanism, and find self-empathy and self-compassion for ourselves, as we keep on learning and growing.

Marion Rose,
BSc PhD DipCouns Dip Psych
Level 2 Aware Parenting Instructor

I have two children, 13 and 8, and I’ve been practising Aware Parenting since my daughter, now 13, was a baby. We
live in far northern N.S.W., Australia, and are school-free. It is my passion to inspire mothers to love their lives, share their gifts, and give their children what they need to thrive.

Marion Rose
B.Sc. Ph.D. Dip.Couns. Dip.Psych. FPCF FPCC
Level Two Aware Parenting Instructor 
Ultimate Support for Mothers 

A huge thank you to Marion Rose for this incredible article.

Please click here to read about thumb sucking from an Orofacial Myology perspective: The ins and outs of thumb sucking by Rochelle McPherson.

With love, light and appreciation