all ears and thumbs.
January 25, 2011 3:38 PM   Subscribe

My 1-year old daughter sucks her thumb, and when she does so she likes to put her free hand--or, equally pleasurably, my hand--around the opposing ear. Why do these two actions go together? Is there a scientific and/or psychodynamic explanation?

Google tends to give me information that treats the two behaviors as pathologies, at least after a certain age. But I'm not interested in stopping her from doing it, I'm just curious about whether there's any research out there that explains why the combination of thumb in mouth and hand over ear is particularly soothing.
posted by Morpeth to Science & Nature (23 answers total)
Maybe she's listening to the sucking noises? (Which you can hear much more clearly if you cover an ear - try it!)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:42 PM on January 25, 2011

A wild guess: both sucking your thumb and having your ears rubbed are ways to relax?
posted by dfriedman at 3:53 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding drfriedman. Two relaxing sensations that taste great together.
posted by Sara C. at 4:00 PM on January 25, 2011

Generally speaking, at this stage infants and toddlers are exploring their own bodies, and are fascinated by holes, such as one's mouth, ears and nostrils. My own nearly 2-year-old son loves to shove rice up his nose.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:03 PM on January 25, 2011

Response by poster: I guess my question is not so much about why she does this, as it's obviously a relaxation technique, but more about the science of relaxing--what makes these two things especially relaxing in combination? Restless nomad's suggestion that the ear thing amplifies the thumb thing, and by extension the relaxation effect, makes sense to me. Perhaps I should try it!
posted by Morpeth at 4:08 PM on January 25, 2011

I know a little boy (4) who loves doing this as well. His favorite is sitting in his mom's lap while sucking his thumb and simultaneously touching her earlobe with his other hand. I've always thought it's because ears feel nice - they are usually the warmest part of the face and have very soft skin. On preview: Sorry, no scientific theory, just confirming that this is a thing.
posted by The Toad at 4:11 PM on January 25, 2011

Don't babies do this in the womb? It seems that if you don't have very much space to work with, putting one hand by your mouth and one by your ear works pretty well. Just speculation though.

Anyway, I do hope you plan to stop her from thumb sucking at some (early) point. My mom thought it was sweet and cute, and I ended up developing a pretty messed up jaw and overbite which required $6,000 worth of orthodontia that I had to pay for myself. Just sayin.

But I do think this is an interesting question and I hope someone knows the actual answer.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 4:14 PM on January 25, 2011

I've heard of and seen babies tugging at their earlobe while sucking their thumb. I always thought it had something to do with pressure equalization or something.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 4:33 PM on January 25, 2011

My daughter sucked her fingers on one hand and twirled her hair with the other. She was just as happy twirling someone else's hair. It seems to just be something to do with the other hand.
posted by ellenaim at 4:39 PM on January 25, 2011

I knew a girl who used to--until she was at least 7 which is the last time I saw her--rub her ear with one hand and use the other to simultaneously thumb-suck and jam the pointer finger in a nostril. So your kid's got one-up on her.

But I have no idea why.
posted by phunniemee at 5:00 PM on January 25, 2011

I'm hanging on to someone's earlobe, whether mine or an adult's, in almost every photo of me as a toddler. I still hang on to my own earlobe sometimes when I'm thinking hard about something. It's very soothing. If you get the lobe between your thumb and the knuckle on your pointer finger, it's the same shape as a worry stone, but warm.

Sadly, I don't know what the physiological relaxation mechanism might be. I heard once that there's a relaxing accupressure point in the earlobes, but have no evidence to back that up.
posted by vytae at 5:05 PM on January 25, 2011

I had no idea anyone else did this; I used to do it as a child as well. I can tell you that it has nothing to do with pressure equalization or sound; it just felt nice, whether it was my own earlobe or someone else's.
posted by agent99 at 5:11 PM on January 25, 2011

Many children who suck their fingers or thumb find a comfortable place to touch with their other hand. My daughter liked to put a finger in her belly button. Earlobes are also common I don't think there is anything particularly special or frequent about cupping the ear - just hapens to be the one that your daughter found for herself.
posted by metahawk at 5:18 PM on January 25, 2011

Many children who suck their fingers or thumb find a comfortable place to touch with their other hand.

I think this is key. The ear is conveniently close, easy to cup with a hand, and provides interesting tactile feedback. Once she becomes habituated to hand + ear = feeling good, she just keeps rolling with it. The fact that it's her ear is probably just an accident of body mechanics in that there are only so many interesting body parts that a baby, even a very flexible one, can comfortably reach.
posted by stefanie at 5:46 PM on January 25, 2011

The ear is connected to the throat via the eustachian tube. My wild guess is that the hand over the ear has something to do with the pressure fluctuations in the ear caused by sucking. (I am not any kind of medical professional and I barely paid attention in anatomy class, but I did have lots of ear infections as a kid.)
posted by desjardins at 5:47 PM on January 25, 2011

If she's not tugging the ear, my experience as an "amoxicilin won't ever work on your kid again" earache sufferer suggests it probably doesn't relate to eustachian tubes. My vote's for convenience.
posted by SMPA at 6:06 PM on January 25, 2011

My niece used to suck her thumb and stick a finger into her navel.
Her parents said that she was completing the circuit.
posted by plinth at 6:12 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

How does she sleep? Does she put a hand under her head? I wonder whether it might be to do with that, as thumb suckers often soothe themselves to sleep by sucking, and when she does it during the daytime, it might be automatic to put the other hand into the position she has it in the night.
posted by lollusc at 6:41 PM on January 25, 2011

I never considered it until you asked this question, but that's exactly what Linus always did.

posted by IAmBroom at 6:59 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

My two-year-old does it when sucking her thumb as well as when she drinks from a sippy cup. I had no idea other kids did this.
posted by 4ster at 7:07 PM on January 25, 2011

I forgot to add (FWIW) that my daughter likes to touch my ears as much as her own when drinking or sucking her thumb.
posted by 4ster at 7:08 PM on January 25, 2011

The earlobe is a acupressure point for relief of sinus pressure and allergy symptoms, so perhaps it is a pressure equalizer as suggested up thread.
posted by agatha_magatha at 8:24 PM on January 25, 2011

When we were little kids, my sister would suck her thumb while holding/stroking her older brother's ear.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

(Our theory was just that our brother's 5-year-old ear was soft and probably felt nice.)
posted by Kololo at 9:06 PM on January 25, 2011

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