Breaking the habit (and my heart)

Ever since she was a babe, our second daughter has been a thumb thucker.

But not just any thumb, mind. It had to be her left thumb—the right one didn’t taste right (or something).

And she couldn’t just pop her thumb in her mouth and suck away, oh no. She had to hold a corner of her spit rag (so named because she was a huge spitter-upper—the rags were always on hand when she was little, and then when she got bigger she refused to relinquish them) in order to suck her thumb.

If she couldn’t find the allocated spit rag, she’d make do with a corner of the diaper she was currently wearing.

Seeing as this particular child is rather high-strung, the fact that she could self sooth was a huge gift. She’d be walloping about in her carseat, screaming about Something Or Other, and all I’d have to do was chuck her spit rag at her and bark SUCK YOUR THUMB and she’d shut right up. Or if she already had her spit rag, then simply threatening to take it from her was enough to make her snap out of it (sometimes). The value of an old diaper must never be underestimated.

The saving grace of this whole thumb-sucking addiction was that she couldn’t suck her thumb without her rag. Take away the rag (which she called her Spic Rag—we hoped no one would overhear her and think we were racist) and the thumb stayed out of the mouth. This made for easy public thumb-sucking weaning. For a year or two now the rag has been stored on the shelf, getting pulled into service only during rest times, nighttimes, and bad days (and anytime she can sneak it without me knowing).

But now that she’s seven and her first baby tooth is on its wobbly way out, John and I have decided it’s time to break the thumb-sucking habit once and for all. This means we had to get her to give up her precious spit rag.

So we had a burning ceremony. We doused the stinky thing with gasoline and torched it while sitting around the fire pit and singing Rock-a-bye Baby and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Just kidding. (Please tell me you didn’t fall for that?)

What we did do was, over the course of several weeks, talk to her about why we wanted her to give up the thumb. We explained. We reasoned. We stayed slightly removed, informative, matter-of-fact. After laying the groundwork, I presented the plan. “Here’s what we’ll do,” I said. “If you go three rest times and three nights without your spit rag, then we’ll take you out for an ice cream cone.” I even made a little chart to illustrate.

At first she was kind of excited. “Can I have two kinds of ice cream?” “Can I go to Mr. J’s Bagels and Dairy Queen and get a toy?”

Then she got slightly anxious.“Can I check off the box before I go to bed?” Can I skip rest time? Because then I won’t miss my spit rag.”

And then she got frantic. “Three nights is too long! You should make it less!”

But we stayed firm.

The first night was the hardest. We could hear her crying quietly, so I went upstairs and climbed into her be-curtained bed (a birthday present from her Papa) and wrapped my arms around her.

“I can’t sleep,” she sobbed. “Can’t we just do rest times and let me have it at night?”

A little piece of my heart chipped off, but I said no.

“You are being incredibly brave,” I gushed. “This is so hard for you, I know. Do you think you could hold one of your dolls instead? Which one is your favorite?”

She rummaged through the menagerie of stuffed and plastic bodies littering her bed and dug out the red sweatshirted brown teddy her sister had given her as a birthday present.

“Aw, isn’t he sweet,” I chirped. “Hug him tight. And look! His feet feel funny. Squeeze them while you go to sleep and think of ice cream cones. Think of all the different flavors. What kind do you think you’ll chose?”

I rubbed her back for a little, and then I went downstairs. We had just a few minutes reprieve before the whimpering started up again—John went upstairs that time. And when she woke up during the night, he was the one to go over and sleep in her bed.

But in the morning there were sleepy proud smiles, hugs and high-fives, and one little box got x-ed off.

Last night John laid beside her till she fell asleep, and when she came downstairs this morning (she was still holding her teddy bear), she announced that the second night was much better.

Thank goodness, because I don’t know how much more heartbreak I can stand.

This same time, years previous: smoky fried chickpeas, brandied-bacony roast chicken


  • Anonymous

    We are on the same journey right now, but it is a two for one deal here. A almost six year old and and almost four year old……doing it at the same time. Bribing them with a surprise when they can reach 20 days. Pitiful and Shameful yes, but it works.

  • Kirsten

    The left thumb tastes better. It's a fact of life.

    Her technique and use of an old spit rag are exactly like mine. I still miss those blankies. And I'm still pretty good at self-calming.

  • KTdid

    I was a thumb-sucker with a twin brother who did not suck his thumb. There are all the pre-school pictures of us–my right thumb wrapped in adhesive tape. Mama also painted my thumb with burn-y stuff. When I had a thumb-sucker of my own, I let her suck her thumb to her heart's content…



  • Unknown

    I also sucked my left thumb until I was seven.
    It was ridicule from my older sisters that eventually made me stop… I'm glad that's not Sweetsie's motivation. 🙂

  • Karen

    My 6 year old, Edison, is a big-time thumb sucker. As I was reading about your daughter it reminded me so much of my son's thumb sucking habits. He became attached to a particular blanket and HAD to have it when he sucked his thumb. The blanket had a silky tag on it and this was the part he would stroke as he thumbsucked. We even started calling the blanket 'tag'.

    Eventually tag fell apart. The actual tag on it fell off, the blanket was in shreds. We tried to take it away in hopes of stopping the thumb sucking (Our dentist started warning us when he was 3 that he was damaging the interior shape of his mouth and jaw). Tag was replaced with a sheet. We took that away, & now it's a big black comforter that he drags around with him.

    We've kinda given up.

    There is a very specific corner of the comforter that he loves and has to have. It too is becoming shredded. The stuffing is even starting to come out. But, he takes that corner, shoves it up his nose (I'm not kidding), and sucks his thumb when he's tired or upset.

    Maybe I should read your post to him and see if that inspires him to give up his thumb and blanket?

  • Mavis

    Dr. P is a psychologist who lives in New York… She analyzes people from her brown leather couch… she throws elaborate dinner parties and has excellent taste in eye wear and shoes… well… except those blue suede shoes she gave JJ… those were a fashion mishap if I've ever seen one…

  • Marie M.

    Who on earth is Dr. Perfection and how does he know about your mother? This post has me reminiscing about my sucking my under-lip. (Don't know if I'm explaining that very well.) I didn't suck my thumb but when I went to bed I'd suck my under-lip and always took my fingers and tucked and folded them into a soft blanket. I stopped sucking my under-lip when I was 13 (yes, 13) and was told I needed braces for my horrid over-bite — caused, according to my mother, from sucking my under-lip. I'm now 67 and no longer suck my under-lip but . . . I always have a very old soft well-washed cotton flannel blanket and rub it against my lips when I'm falling asleep — think of the movie "The Producers" and the scene where Gene Wilder takes out his "blue blankie" and . . . well, that's me. Only in private and only at bedtime. Shh. Don't tell anyone. p.s. I bet lots of adults do something similar, don't you?

  • dr perfection

    She inherited the thumbsucking from your mother. Her mother had to paint her thumb with some foul-tasting stuff.

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