Care and Feeding

My 3-Year Old’s Thumb Sucking Drives Me Crazy

What should I do?

Close-up of a girl with a braid sucking her thumb.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kathariena/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 3 and has sucked her thumb since she was an infant. She does not do this while playing or otherwise active, but during any quiet activity (i.e., listening to a story, watching TV, or during circle time at school), the thumb goes right in, as it does to help her go to sleep. She also twirls her hair, sometimes with the same hand that she’s using to suck her thumb, sometimes with the other hand, and sometimes with both hands! It drives me insane. The hair twirling began when she was a baby and would touch my hair for comfort, but it transitioned to her reaching for her own hair. If I try to put her hair up so that she can’t get to it, she loses her mind. We’ve tried giving her other things to hold instead, but nothing works, just as nothing works to get her to quit the thumb sucking (we’ve tried the yucky nail polish method, which is ineffective and also seems cruel, and we don’t let her speak to us with the thumb in her mouth; we ask her to take it out so we can understand her).

For what it’s worth, she was born with a cleft palate and was unable to use a pacifier. However, her speech is now excellent and her teeth seem to be fine—although the dentist has warned me that the thumb sucking will cause problems the longer it lasts. Is there anything to be done? Or do we do like all the articles about thumb sucking say (I can find nothing about hair twirling!) and basically wait it out and hope she doesn’t suck her thumb well into elementary school and beyond?

—Tired of Twirling and Sucking

Dear Tired,

Please, please let your child comfort herself in peace. She is 3 years old. There’s plenty of time for her to give up thumb sucking well before it causes orthodontic problems. And there’s nothing wrong with her twirling her hair. That this completely harmless, self-soothing activity is driving you insane is something you need to deal with—i.e., your problem, not hers. Consider this: Instead of working so hard to break her of habits that she has developed in response to a need for comfort, why not try to offer various forms of comfort to her, in words and deeds? I can’t tell you why your daughter is self-soothing to this extent. She may be a supersensitive child (yes, some people are born that way) or she might be responding to some specific anxieties she is too young to name—or both. But I promise you this: She’s comforting herself for a reason. Don’t give her more reasons to need to.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister is a wonderful human being. Incredibly smart, compassionate, and fun-loving. She is also exquisitely sensitive: Raised voices sounds like shouting to her, any advice is “harsh criticism,” one bad night’s sleep is devastating and she’s tired for a week. I acknowledge I wasn’t very accommodating of her when we were kids, but I do my best now. The issue is that my 8-year-old niece is at her best a superbright and fun-loving kid (like her mom), and at worst a hellion. Her cringeworthy behavior ranges from picking her nose and wiping it on doorknobs and walls, to getting naked and running around when she’s supposed to go to bed, to whining and throwing tantrums. Every member of the family is uncomfortable with my niece’s behavior, but we’re all afraid to say something to my sister—who knows that her daughter’s behavior is abhorrent but never corrects or redirects her (it’s too exhausting for her to do so). My niece’s bad behavior has caused problems at school and at after-school activities (sports and group activities in particular). My brother-in-law is pretty absentee in all of this, but gets shouty with my niece when he does make an effort to correct her. My sister is guilty of this as well. Instead of redirecting their daughter, they bark at her to stop whatever it is she’s doing, and there are never any consequences for her actions because my niece would throw a fit if there were.

Before quarantine, my sister came to visit and my niece’s behavior very nearly ruined the weekend, especially because I have a daughter of my own, who watches my niece’s behavior and tries to copy it. It took weeks to deprogram the whining/hysterics. Now that we are under quarantine, we’ve been trying to keep up with my family via FaceTime and Zoom. On Easter Sunday, during a family Zoom get-together, my niece was acting out again. And my daughter is copying her cousin’s dreadful behavior again. Should I say something to my sister, or continue to walk on eggshells?

Confused in Quarantine

Dear CiQ,

Should you say what to your sister? She has acknowledged that her daughter’s behavior troubles her and has made it clear to you that she can’t or won’t do anything about it. Do you think that telling her that her daughter is a bad influence on yours is going to be the magic bullet here? Or are you just tired of keeping your opinions of her parenting to yourself (sort of to yourself—it sounds like the rest of the family talks about this on the regular)? If it’ll make you feel better to let her have it (“Why the hell can’t you do something about your hellion daughter?”), sure, let it fly. But don’t kid yourself that it’s going to do anything other than give you the chance to release what you’ve been bottling up. And know that the result will likely be a schism between you and your wonderful sister.

If you want to help her, why not try something completely different? You could call her up and ask how she’s doing generally. You could offer her some empathy (surely being a parent is awfully hard sometimes for you too, isn’t it?). She already knows that her daughter is a handful and that this child is clearly having a rough time and acting out like mad, and chances are good that whatever was going on with her before has been exacerbated by current circumstances. So just try to be available for your sister. Lucky for you (I guess), family get-togethers IRL won’t be happening for quite some time. And if you want to limit or entirely cut Zooming while the kids are present, feel free to do that. “I am all Zoomed out—let’s just talk on the phone today, OK?” is a very legitimate excuse. More than an excuse. A real thing. I for one am already there.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I gave birth to our second child several weeks ago. Before the baby was born, I worried a lot about losing the special, one-on-one bond with my first and that I could never love the baby as much. Now that the baby is here, I’m worried about the opposite: that I love the baby more. Comparatively, the baby is much less work than the toddler: She mostly sleeps and eats and rarely cries. My son, while adorable and a lot of fun, is a typical toddler: talks nonstop, demands a lot of attention, and likes to test boundaries. It’s much more exhausting being around him, and I prefer to send him out to the park with my husband while I cuddle with the baby. But then I’m sad that I feel that way and miss having fun with him. Is this a normal second-child problem? I don’t think my son minds at all, since he’s now at home 24/7 with both Mom and Dad (instead of going to day care). It’s mostly my attitude I’m worried about.

—Second-Child Woes

Dear SCW,

You don’t love the baby more than you love his big brother! You are just doing what the mother of a newborn who is lucky enough to have someone with whom to share the work of parenting does. Babies are less work in some ways, as you note (I know there are readers shaking their heads right about now, like, Is she kidding me? Babies are endless work—but I feel you, because I was the same way with my own brand new baby, the constant care of whom didn’t feel like work at all), but they need a particular kind of constant attention, and it’s great that you’re able to give it to her and that you are loving every minute of it. Meanwhile, your son is happy! And you have plenty of time ahead to have fun with him. You have two children you are obviously crazy about. Enjoy your baby. Before you know it, the newborn phase will be over. Don’t be so hard on yourself. There’s no cause to worry—your attitude is just fine.

But I think some of what’s happening here is that you are mourning—or maybe just feeling nostalgic about—the one-on-one connection with your son. If you can find a way to get a little bit of this right now, perhaps lying down with him at bedtime each night, or setting aside a designated hour a couple of times a week to read to him or watch something with him, you might feel better about how things are during this period (which I know feels very long but—as you will recall when you think back to your son’s infancy—is in fact fleeting). Parents of multiple kids assure me that going from one kid to two can be a much bigger adjustment than going from zero to one. Anything you can do to help yourself manage this in a way that doesn’t tax you any further than you already are would be a good idea.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Just like everyone else’s household, the global pandemic is causing upheaval in ours, which consists of my spouse and myself, a 3½ -year-old (“R”) and a 16-month-old (“T”). R went to preschool before it closed, and T was home with a nanny. Now it is just my spouse and I, working in shifts and watching the children. This is OK, we will manage for the next month, and then we will see (maybe nanny could come back then? Who knows!).

But I’m worried about the kids. I have tried to be cheerful and careful and provide structure and routine and keep them occupied with activities, but I wonder if R has noticed all that has disappeared from her life: her grandparents, who had always been around, and other extended family; T’s nanny (who was a consistent presence for R too); and her preschool routine—not to mention going to the playground and elsewhere. What we have told her is that this is a time when everyone has decided to stay at home, that for now we will Zoom with family and teachers and see them in person later. Is there anything else I can or should say?

R hasn’t asked direct questions but has been much more clingy and needy. As for T, I was planning to start integrating her into more age-appropriate group activities in preparation for starting preschool in the fall, and obviously that isn’t happening. If (a big if, I guess) preschool does resume in the fall and she transitions straight from being at home all the time to a group setting, are we setting her up for a difficult time? R had some more “ramp up” with group classes, etc., before starting preschool. I worry too they are both missing important developmental milestones, and who knows how long this will last? R may start asking direct questions before this is over and I don’t know of an age-appropriate way to talk about what’s happening. I know I’m one of the very, very lucky ones, privileged to be able to work from home and able to try to keep my family safe, but still I’m just feeling so much stress and anxiety and sadness.

—Where Did Everybody Go?

Dear WDEG,

I completely understand the way your anxiety is manifesting itself, but I want to assure you that the kids will be OK. T’s transition to preschool will be fine, when it comes (it might take a little longer than R’s did, that’s all). They aren’t missing any developmental milestones. You and your husband—and the family and friends and teachers with whom you are Zooming—can provide everything they need right now. And when (if!) R starts asking questions, listen carefully to exactly what’s being asked and don’t answer anything that’s not being asked. (This is good practice for when questions about how babies are made, etc., come up. Kids let you know what they need to know when. Take your cues from them.) I wish I had a way to relieve you of your stress, anxiety, and sadness—I can’t. But I can tell you that these feelings inevitably coalesce around our children (my child is grown and it’s she, hundreds of miles away, whom I’m worrying about). Yours are right there where you can see them and protect them. You’re doing a great job. Give them a hug for me.


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