Q: My 5-year-old recently started putting his fingers in his mouth when he’s watching TV, daydreaming, etc. He’s never been a thumb-sucker. This is new behavior. What’s up?
~ Norine, in Orlando, FL
A: Grab the baby milestones calendar! Developmentally, your five year old has gotten to a new stage. Actually, it’s a repeat of an old stage that he last experienced around 18 months. This is the If-It-Feels-Good-Do-It phase. Self-stimulation peaks in early toddlerhood, around age 5-6 and then again at puberty. In some kids it disappears entirely between these peaks, in some kids it just drops to a dull roar. If you’re wondering about adults, by then it’s not a phase, it’s a personality trait.
First off, consider yourself lucky. Your son is learning an important life-skill: self-soothing. For the first few years of his life, his favorite grownups were the source of all his comfort, now he’s learning to do it himself. Even better, his self-soothing is not taking the form of something publically inappropriate like masturbating (also normal at this age but often more upsetting for parents). You probably notice this behavior most when he is tired, or unsure of something. Most well-adjusted adults have some self-soothing habits – morning coffee, internet surfing (hmmmm…), retail therapy, exercise, the list goes on.
The best news I have is that this particular habit is probably self-limited. Most children do not develop life-long sucking habits starting at this age. Chances are he is not doing this at school or around friends unless he is totally comfortable with them. Also, it’s likely that his self-soothing habits will change. He may have one embarrassing experience of hearing from a friend or sibling that this is baby-ish, and then he’ll monitor himself better and pick something new. Don’t worry about protecting him from that moment – it won’t kill him and it will teach him something valuable. Be comforted yourself – he’s doing this in front of you because you are in a safe space with him. I would not recommend spending too much of your own brain-power on this unless you feel that the time he spends doing this is increasing dramatically. If so, look for the source of his discomfort and talk to him about it.