It's not easy to talk about, but I am a recovering addict. I was a fiend for the left thumb. I was one of the lucky ones who got out without braces, but not before I saw thumb-sucking tear my family apart. It started out socially, but by time I reached 1st grade, I was sucking my thumb between classes and when I was alone at night. When I woke up in the morning, incisors still aching from the prior night's binge, I would roll over and look for the nearest thumb. I told my parents I was clean, of course, but they didn't have to dust my hard palate for fingerprints to know I was lying.
It got to the point that I couldn't even remember what life was like before I started sucking. I still don't remember, actually.
After countless failed attempts, I finally got the help I needed. I'm delighted to say that on March 30th, I celebrated 28 years of complete thumb-sobriety. Thank you, I know! One day at a time, right?
Pediatricians will have you believe that babies are drawn to their own thumbs because it reminds them of nursing. That your infant's immature brain and underdeveloped tactile senses prevent her from distinguishing two objects as disparate as a thumb and a breast. This is a reassuring thought for parents, because it implies that it is not your baby's fault. She just doesn't know better.
But babies know the difference. It's a hard mouthful of colostrum to swallow, but the evidence is overwhelming.
The synthetic nipples used in baby bottles have a similar texture to flesh nipples, I suppose, if the latter is having a good day. I concede that a baby who hasn't had much formal education could be hoodwinked into thinking a bottle was some kind of dwarfish wet nurse. It's a little far-fetched, but a lot of kids weren't exposed to Mozart in utero, leaving them cognitively behind their peers. Those kids might now know, for instance, how big a dwarf is.
But let's be perfectly clear: thumbs do not feel like nipples. Hey kid, you know that hard smooth thing that keeps scraping your gum flaps when you bite it at the wrong angle? Pretty hard to miss, right? That's called a thumbnail, and you are not going to find anything remotely resembling that on a breast. If you ever grow up and get to be in a bridal party, you will be treated to a mani pedi, not a mammo-pedi.
You will also notice that when you put your thumb into your mouth, the thumb feels wet. Every time you put someone's nipple in your mouth, your thumb does not feel wet. Not unless you have one of those granola mothers who birthed you underwater and forgot to take you out.
Just look at the nearest baby's thumb. I'm doing that right now, and it is longer and thinner than any nipple I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of nipples. (Either 10 or infinity, depending on whether or not I can count the nipples I see when I stand topless between two mirrors.)
Even if a baby's brain is not fully myelinated, I'm pretty sure it can tell the difference between the flavor of an inedible thumb and the flavor of life-sustaining milk. Not to brag, but by a few weeks of age, my own kids had already developed such cultured and discriminating tastes that they would literally vomit half of what I fed them. Not every baby has such a sophisticated palate, but even the most uncivilized preemie isn't going to confuse the taste of milk with the taste of NO milk.
So don't delude yourself into believing that your infant is sucking her thumb because she doesn't know better. She's doing it to escape, to fit in, to rebel, or maybe even to seem more grown up. You want to be her friend, but what she needs right now is parent. A parent with real nipples.
With your help, we can make this a thumb-free world.
With warmest regards,