Adult thumb sucking and putting things in the mouth


We’re used to seeing babies sucking their thumbs as it’s their typical behaviour but what makes adults do the same thing? What’s behind adult thumb sucking and why do they put things in their mouths?

Laila, an accountant working in a sales company, was auditing accounts when suddenly she put a finger in her mouth, thought for a while, and then continued working on her office computer desktop.

Tony, a construction engineer, was estimating the cost of a construction project. He put his pen in his mouth frequently as he pressed buttons on his calculator. 

Janet, while listening to a debate, was noting down important points on her notepad. Throughout the debate, her pencil was either scribbling sentences on the pad or getting sucked into her mouth.

I’m certain you’ve observed people putting their fingers or other objects in their mouth in many other similar kinds of situations or you may have even caught yourself engaging in this behaviour.

But did you ever stop to ask why? What’s so different about these situations that force people to put things in their mouth and what purpose does such behaviour serve?

The answer lies in our infancy

When an infant sucks on her mother’s breast, it not only obtains the life-sustaining, nutrient-rich mother’s milk but also receives psychological comfort and a sense of bonding.

When the infant becomes a toddler and is no longer breastfed, it achieves the same psychological comfort by sucking on its thumb or a blanket or a garment.

As the toddler keeps growing, moving from childhood into adulthood through teenage, sucking the thumb or a blanket no longer becomes acceptable. ‘It is something that only babies do’, society teaches them.

So they employ more subtle forms of the same behaviour, putting their fingers in their mouth (not the thumb because that’s too obvious) or other objects such as pens, pencils, glasses, cigarettes, etc.

adult thumb sucking

The situations in which a person feels uncomfortable or insecure and needs reassurance and comfort are the kinds of situations that trigger this behaviour.

An accountant who comes across an untraceable account, an engineer having difficulty estimating the costs or a person listening to a highly intellectual and erudite debate- all these situations can cause slight to severe emotional discomfort.

To reassure and comfort themselves, these people put things in their mouth because it provides them with the same feeling of comfort that breastfeeding provided them with when they were infants.

So putting fingers or other objects in the mouth is an unconscious attempt by the person to revert to the security of the child sucking on its mother’s breasts and this behaviour occurs when a person feels under pressure, insecure or uncomfortable.

Cigarette smoking = adult thumb-sucking

I guess by now you’ve understood why some smokers smoke cigarettes. But be careful. All smokers do not smoke for the reason that I described. Reverting to infancy related breastfeeding comfort is a major reason behind smoking but there are other psychological forces too that can lead to smoking.

An interesting study revealed that smoking has less to do with nicotine addiction and more to do with the need for comfort and reassurance. It was found that babies who were mostly bottle-fed represent the majority of adult smokers and the heaviest smokers, while the longer a baby was breastfed, the less chance there was that it would become a smoker.

Some psychologists believe that the kind of comfort that breastfeeding provides is unattainable from a bottle, the consequence being that the bottle-fed babies, as adults, continue the search for the comfort that they were deprived of in their infancy. They do this by sucking on objects which includes smoking cigarettes.

This is not surprising because every time I see someone light up, it’s always because of some kind of inner turmoil that is going on in the person. 

Anxiety during preparation for exams, impatience due to waiting for someone and anger due to a quarrel with a friend are common triggers that force a smoker to light up.

Enough with the lung damage, let’s move on to the brighter side

Putting a finger in the mouth is an attraction gesture that women sometimes do in the presence of those they are attracted to. It is a very intimate gesture and is often accompanied by a loving smile.

The woman puts one or more of her fingers in the mouth, usually near the corner, as she presses them lightly between her teeth.

adult thumb sucking female

Men are floored by this gesture and you’ll find women doing it often when they pose for magazines. But why this ordinary gesture has such a powerful effect on men? 

In an earlier post about shoulder movements, I mentioned that most female attraction signals are nothing but signals of submissive behavior. A child is the most submissive of all creatures and therefore many attractive gestures of women revolve around serving one major purpose i.e. to make the woman appear more child-like.

When a child is in the company of people whose love it requires- parents, siblings, cousins, etc. it sometimes puts its finger in its mouth in a very submissive and cute way that forces the adults around it to bombard it with hugs and kisses.

Don’t forget that a child who is loved not only has more chances of survival but is also more likely to undergo healthy psychological development.

When an adult woman does this gesture, it is a powerful submission signal that triggers the protective instinct of men and they feel the same urge to embrace her. That’s how it all works.