The oral behaviors of infancy, thumb sucking, and the sucking of pacifiers (or dummies, as they are called in British Commonwealth countries), have been noted for centuries. It appears that mothers have always been aware that sucking provides comfort, sleep, and pleasure to babies. Sucking rags were described in the sixteenth century. These were later replaced with teething rings and corals, and increasingly with the rubber pacifier after 1900. A number of fifteenth-century Italian paintings depict thumb sucking, and thumb sucking and blanket attachment are the characteristics of the Linus character in the contemporary cartoon Peanuts. For most of this time, such oral behaviors have been seen as distinctive of infancy and a source of comfort and pleasure for both the child and parent. But this benign view changed in the late nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth century. Members of the medical profession began to exhibit marked hostility to these infantile habits and in 1926 they influenced the French Chamber of Deputies to carry a motion prohibiting the sale of the sucette (pacifier).

This change in attitude was associated with two beliefs: one, that this type of infantile sucking was a threat to the health and development of babies and posed a risk of both infection and damage to the teeth and jaws, and two, that sucking provided the infant with a pleasure that was inherently sexual. These ideas were formed against a background of a medical and societal interest in child behavior and its implications for specifically hereditary degeneration, but also for a possible general societal degeneration manifested by poverty, declining industries, and, in the United Kingdom, poor performance in the Boer War (1899–1902). The analysis of child behavior was in turn influenced by theories of INFANT SEXUALITY and its implications for the moral development of the child and the subsequent adult.

These oral behaviors are unique to infancy and had previously been judged to be normal in that context, but this changed with the new emphasis on potential consequences for the adult whom the child would become. Such common habits could now be defined as abnormal in order to prevent future pathology. Popular belief therefore made a transition from seeing sucking as a comfort and a sign of health to a medical problem, which had to be corrected to produce normal adults.

Thus in the late nineteenth century thumb sucking and associated oral behaviors emerged in the literature of the diseases of children as pathology: a pathology of ugly dental malformation and worrying infant sexual behavior. The issue was first mentioned in 1878 by an American physician, Thomas Chandler, as a cause of mouth and tooth deformities. Other authors subsequently associated such facial deformities with negative moral development. A German pediatrician, S. Lindner, introduced a sexual element, associating it with MASTURBATION. His writings were cited by SIGMUND FREUD, who identified thumb sucking as the classic example of his idea of infant autoeroticism and as a manifestation of infant sexuality. In pediatric texts, masturbation and thumb sucking became grouped together first under injurious habits of infancy and subsequently within functional neurological diseases. A number of aspects were repeatedly emphasized: the dangers for future neurological development; the pleasure a child derived from it, and the laxity shown toward it by parents, nurses, and some physicians. The medical profession was urged to reeducate parents and make them see the habit for the danger physicians believed it posed.

These attitudes persisted in the first third of the twentieth century. Treatment was directed at breaking the habit through destruction of the pacifier and diversion techniques for thumb sucking, including cotton mittens and sleeves pinned or sewed down over the hand. Over the remaining part of the century, however, the attitude gradually changed so that sucking behavior was seen increasingly as a common and harmless activity of infancy and early childhood. Indeed it was often identified as a necessary part of development and the thumb or pacifier a transitional object, a psychoanalytical concept relating to the transition from inner reality to external life. At the same time, residual ambivalent attitudes can still be detected in medical and child-rearing texts. In essence, the representation of such infant behaviors has at any one time reflected the prevailing view of child rearing, child sexuality, and child development.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology.


Gale, Catherine, and Christopher Martyn. 1995. "Dummies and the Health of Hertfordshire Infants, 1911–1930." Social History of Medicine 8: 231–255.

Gillis, Jonathan. 1996. "Bad Habits and Pernicious Results: Thumb Sucking and the Discipline of Late-Nineteenth Century Paediatrics." Medical History 40: 55–73.

Levin, S. 1971. "Dummies." South African Medical Journal 45: 237–240.