We were at the zoo when it happened. Finn was one month old and enjoying his chauffeured ride around the park, the pacifier that he had clung to since birth firmly in place as he took in the monkeys, giraffes, and creepy reptile exhibit that caused his older brother to squeal with no small amount of excitement. Then it happened; we had stopped for lunch and were sitting at a picnic table, Max hurriedly devouring his lunch so he didn’t miss the opportunity to see more monkeys shaking their butts in his direction. Finn suddenly spit out the pacifier – complete with “popping” sound – and put in his thumb.
It was beyond cute; his tiny baby hand up to his face, the four non-sucked fingers stroking his cheek as he sucked wildly at his thumb. Adorable. We oohed and aahed at how ridiculously cute our kid was, never once imagining that this little self-soothing practice would still be firmly in place five years later.
We never really thought it was a big deal. Both my husband and I knew that Finn would stop sucking his thumb eventually and, truth be told, his thumb preference made the baby years so much easier. We didn’t need to get up five times during the night to put the pacifier back in that had fallen out of reach in the corner of his crib. We didn’t need to bring out the ninja moves that involved one person balancing while the other drove, contorting ourselves to reach a pacifier that had gone missing in the back seat during a long car trip. When Finn needed soothing, he simply popped that little thumb in and sucked away.
Even as he got older, I thought it was adorable. At the end of a long preschool day, Finn’s eyes would grow heavy as soon as his thumb was in place, his little fingers stroking his nose and cheek to add extra comfort. I joked that he was going to rub a groove in the top of his nose, the thumb sucking and nose rubbing going hand-in-hand as he got older. No, we really didn’t think much of it, exchanging stories of family members or friends who admitted to sucking their thumbs until well into grade school, a hidden secret that they felt comfortable sharing only years later. If Finn still sucked his thumb in fifth grade, that was just another unique little trait about him that made Finn Finn.
Although the thumbsucking itself didn’t bother me, what it was doing to this thumb and his teeth, started to. Finn’s little thumb was calloused and hard to the touch, at times bleeding from the sensitivity. We spoke with the dentist about the damage that sucking his thumb could be doing to his teeth alignment. I tried to put a bandage on his thumb to help it heal, but it was like taking his favorite blanket away cold turkey, perhaps even more dramatic because he could still see it. As Finn approached kindergarten, we suggested that it might be time to stop, but such suggestions were met with silent head shake and refusal to discuss. Finn wasn’t ready to let it go, so we decided that we needed to. We simply stopped talking about it because we didn’t want to make him feel bad for hanging onto something that he obviously still needed in some way.
Finn will be six years old in June. For the majority of his kindergarten year, he continued to suck his thumb at night – his signal to us that his wild day was done, and he was ready to wind it down so he could recharge and start all over again tomorrow. One evening, Finn was snuggled up with me on the couch and I noticed something. He was making quiet little noises in his throat; it sounded like he needed to cough or clear his throat, but he never did. The noises were quiet and repetitive. A bit peculiar, my husband and I just chalked it up to yet another “hmmm, OK” parenting moment that joined so many others that had surprised us over the years. At the same time that I noticed this new little throat clearing tic, I noticed something else – he wasn’t sucking his thumb.
On his own, Finn had apparently decided to stop. Because I assumed that the throat noises were a way of dealing with his loss – a form of transference, perhaps – we simply acknowledged how proud we were of him and waited to see if he would suffer a thumb relapse at any point. He never did and, eventually, the throat clearing stopped, too.
I fully admit that I miss it. I miss seeing my little boy curled up on the couch with his thumb in his mouth because, after shedding all baby and toddler habits over the years, it was the last little habit that remained. Did I want him to continue sucking his thumb into adolescence? Well, no.
Do I constantly fight the urge to keep my kids young, innocent, and child-like in everything they do? Yes, absolutely.
Finn’s thumb sucking didn’t traumatize him; in fact, it reminded me of an important lesson. Sometimes, they really do know what’s best for them.