I was born this way
I, like all babies, was born with a tongue thrust reflex. This is a very valuable reflex where the tongue forces any foreign material out of a baby’s mouth and prevents choking. For some babies, this means that things like pacifiers and bottles get pushed out as often as they stay in. Babies with aggressive tongue thrust can have problems accepting hard food and often become thumb or finger suckers because the pacifiers won’t stay in and they use their own fingers to suck on.
The natural tongue thrust reflex is supposed to go away as a child matures, however, a significant percentage of children do not outgrow the reflex. I’m one of those who didn’t. At the age of five, when most children have mostly outgrown this reflex, I was still sucking the two middle fingers of my right hand. My mom despaired of ever stopping me. She tried everything, but despite parental disapproval, foul tasting solutions on my fingers, and every other method my mom could think of, I kept sucking those fingers—all the way to 7th grade.
What happened then? I got braces.
Can a natural behavior really be harmful?
You see, by the time I reached elementary school, my finger sucking—both a result and cause of my continued tongue thrust reflex—had severely damaged my adult teeth. I had an overbite so wide that I could push a finger into my mouth with my jaw closed. The upper pallet had become so narrow that my upper teeth were inside my lower teeth on a bite. My lower jaw was underdeveloped, having had my hand pressing on it almost constantly as I grew. I had a lisp and had never correctly learned to say some words. When I was in 5th grade, the school placed me in speech therapy, where I had to sit with a therapist and drink water and say words out loud, concentrating on the position of my tongue, and practice tongue exercises every night. I went to this therapy every week for most of the school year. It didn’t do me a bit of good.
I was still sucking my fingers. It made me happy. It made me content. It comforted me. Looking back, I think it was an expression of the anxiety I felt facing a world that scared and confused me. Despite the fact that the behavior was frowned on by everyone I came in contact with—both adults and peers—I kept doing it because it was something I “needed” to do. I hid the behavior behind my other hand and even did it in class—I chose my seat so I was against the right wall and could suck behind my left hand without censure from anyone on my right. I went off by myself during recess, so I could suck without anyone trying to stop me. It was defiant behavior, irrespective of what anyone else thought was good for me.
Finally, in despair of ever stopping the habit, my parents decided to go ahead and get me braces to at least start fixing the damage that I was doing to my mouth. The orthodontist they took me to solved the finger sucking right off. He sat me down and told me that he was going to put braces on my teeth, and if I wanted to keep sucking my fingers, I was going to rip my fingers up on the brackets.
That day, the spacers went in for the brackets, and I stopped sucking my fingers cold turkey. Just like that. Once or twice I put the fingers in my mouth and instantly withdrew them. I never sucked them again.
Then came the braces. The first thing put in was a torture device called an expander. It was a bridge across my upper pallet that came with a little key. Every night, my mom would stick that key in the middle of the bridge and give it one turn, and slowly over the course of several weeks, that bridge pushed my upper pallet wider, breaking the pallet one small turn at a time. Sound painful? Yeah, believe me it was. When the orthodontist declared the pallet wide enough, the key turning stopped, and my upper pallet was given a chance to heal. For a year, I had a this metal bridge across the top of my mouth. With every swallow, I had to suck around the bridge. When it finally came out, I had to learn to swallow properly again. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn it correctly.
Did the braces fix anything. No. You see, while I stopped finger sucking and had my bite corrected. The therapy I had in 5th grade for the tongue thrusting had not become habit. I was still tongue thrusting. and to this day—I turn 40 this year—I still tongue thrust. With every swallow, my tongue pushes against my teeth instead of the roof of my mouth. The beautiful straight teeth that I received from a couple years of braces went away by the time I finished high school. I still have an overbite. When I sleep at night, my jaw clenches and my big, fat tongue pushes against the cage of my teeth the entire time I’m sleeping. My face is deformed by years of misuse of my facial muscles. I can’t bite into things from the front. I have to bite sideways because only the molars at the very back of my mouth meet. I can’t eat things like hamburgers and BLTs without first tearing the lettuce up into little pieces or I’ll put it all out when I take a bite. It affects every part of my life, right down to being camera shy because I can’t stand the shape of my face.
So why do I confess this behavior to the world on a public blog?
Well, for one thing, I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles with this private disgrace. Whenever I see a mother struggling with keeping a pacifier in her baby’s mouth, this unmentionable torment in my private life rears its ugly head. I then tell the mother about the tongue thrust reflex and urge them to not let their baby start sucking a thumb or finger and to seek help for the reflex before the child gets too old. If I can save one child from becoming the adult I am today, it will be worth it.
My not-so-hidden agenda
But I have another reason to bring this up as well.
You see, I was born this way. I really can use that excuse because it’s true. It may or may not be genetic, and it may or may not be environmentally influenced, but whatever the “reason” for the behavior, I can use the excuse that it was a reflex I was born with.
But is that really a valid excuse? Does that make the behavior any better for me or any other child that has it? The finger-sucking made me happy. It brought me comfort. It even fulfilled some kind of deep need that I wasn’t even aware that I had.
But was it good for me?
Is it wrong to have a malformed jawline because of a reflexive behavior or is this just a social meme that has been forced on me by a repressive society or an unrealistic standard of beauty? Why shouldn’t I suck my fingers? Why should I have faced disdain, even discrimination on the part of my peers, because of a behavior I couldn’t help doing? Why shouldn’t the shape of my cheeks and jaw, my malformed profile, or my overbite be considered beautiful instead of abnormal? Shouldn’t I be supported in this behavior because it brought me happiness and, if any hurt was involved, it only harmed me?
I have heard this excuse applied to other behaviors as a justification for why those behaviors should be not only accepted, but condoned or even encouraged, by society, but I don’t see how that excuse holds any kind of validity.
From personal experience, I would have to say that being born that way is not an excuse at all. There are lots of things that we are born with that negatively influence us, but we are not dumb animals to just accept harmful desires, mannerisms, or behaviors simply because we are born with them. We have intelligence and moral sense. We can will/train ourselves into less harmful behavior. We can take the concern of those around us seriously and adjust our behavior to prevent harm to ourselves—which also impacts those who care about us. If you wish to be justified in a behavior that has been deemed socially unacceptable or harmful by the majority of people for any reason, I beg you not to use the “born that way” excuse because it simply isn’t valid. Please take my example as a case in point.
I am unwilling to accept my tongue thrusting reflex as natural and correct just because I was born with it. The struggle with this problem will probably continue until the day I die, but I will keep struggling because I know I shouldn’t do it.
For more information
For more information about the tongue thrust reflex, you can read the simplified explanation here or search online for articles on “orofacial muscular imbalance.” If you have this problem or have a child with this problem, I strongly encourage you to seek and pursue therapy. Don’t wait until it’s too late to fix the long term effects of this disorder.