Humans are not alone when it comes to thumb-sucking, it is a trait found in the mammalian kingdom and can be seen in monkeys, apes, chimpanzees, dogs, cats, lions, tigers and bears “OH MY”. Now elephants do it slightly differently – they would struggle to get their actual thumb into their mouths, so they use a thumb stand-in!
Sucking is a built-in reflex that has many benefits to babies, it can help to mellow fussy babies, it helps the plates of a newborn’s skull to re-align, sucking equals food and mum – therefore, it also equals comfort. Premature babies that suck their thumbs have been shown to leave hospitals far sooner than their non-sucking counterparts. It has physiological effects too, affecting both heart and breathing rates, as well as regulating stomach muscle movements and thereby aiding digestion.
Sucking a thumb can act to calm children in stressful situations, much like a cigarette to a smoker and a drink to a drinker. However, negativity surrounding it can move it into the realms of addiction, such as smoking, drinking and over-eating.
Thumb-sucking before the age of 3 or 4, has shown to have limited ill effects and has often subsided by then. There are issues associated with teeth after that age – if the thumb merely rests in the mouth, the potential risks are negligible. However, if the child is forceful sucker it can cause issues to teeth alignment and in extreme cases jaw misalignment.
Thumb-sucking is often thought of as cute in young children but has more negative connotations in older children. The more negativity a child receives about sucking their thumb, the stronger the chance a habit will develop – rather than just being a natural developmental stage from which they can move on.
Thumb-sucking has been noted as being the first addiction and stopping it can be as hard for some as quitting nicotine, alcohol or any other drug. The important thing to remember for parents attempting to stop thumb-sucking is that relapse is common, just as with any addiction. Your job is to help them find a healthy replacement coping mechanism and it will take persistence, forgiveness and patience.
Just like human newborns, elephant calves are born with a strong sucking reflex. It helps them to instinctively know what to do when confronted with a breast. Sucking equals food and mum – what could be more comforting.
Apart from providing comfort, trunk-sucking helps an elephant calf to learn how to use and control its newly found face worm. An elephant’s lengthy appendage has more than 50,000 individual muscles and can make controlling it a complicated process. Sucking on its trunk can help young calves to learn how to manipulate and finesse the muscles to fine-tune its use.
There’s another similarity that elephants share with us humans, it’s that some of them never stop trunk-sucking, or in our case thumb-sucking. Mature bull elephants have been observed trunk-sucking when they are upset or nervous. In the case of humans, along with thumb sucking, we carry on some childhood habits well into adulthood.
A survey of over 1400 adults has revealed that 24% still sleep with toys, 21% sleep with the light on 10% own a comforter or blanket, 8% stroke skin or soft item, and the most relevant – 12% still suck their thumb or another digit! (Check out the video above if you don’t believe it). I think it’s only prudent that I use this as an opportunity to confess, I (Jamie) was an adult thumb sucker – well into my twenties!
All mammals are born to suck, some of us stop as children and for some, it turns into a comforting habit. Remember that for most children it’s a perfectly natural developmental stage and is not something that should be ridiculed – something that can actually have the opposite effect on children and could turn it into a long-term habit that becomes as hard to kick as alcohol and nicotine.