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In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Sigmund Freud describes thumb-sucking as "rhythmic repetition of a sucking contact by the mouth (or lips). There is no question of the purpose of this procedure being the taking of nourishment" (pp. 178-180). Sucking itself is defined as a sexual autoerotic pleasure, "as a sample of the sexual manifestations of childhood" (p. 179).

From this point on, the infant's sucking activity served for Freud as an exemplary case, enabling him to demonstrate how the sexual instinct seeks satisfaction through a separate, vital, self-preservative function; it subsequently becomes autonomous and seeks satisfaction through auto-erotism. At the end of his life, in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1940e [1938]), Freud reaffirmed its significance: "The baby's obstinate persistence in sucking gives evidence at an early stage of a need for satisfaction which, though it originates from and is instigated by the taking of nourishment, nevertheless strives to obtain pleasure independently of nourishment and for that reason may and should be termed sexual " (p. 154). Beginning in 1915, Freud described an aggressive "cannibalistic" oral stage that aims at incorporation, with emphasis not only upon the erotogenic zone but also upon the object to be incorporated.

A number of analysts have investigated the broader issues surrounding the activity of sucking and the oral stage. Freud suggested that an infant would "pronounce the act of sucking at his mother's breast by far the most important in his life" (1916-17a [1915-17], p. 314); in fact, the act of sucking can be recognized from the twelfth to the thirteenth week of intrauterine life, as the fetus opens and closes its mouth in a more or less rhythmic manner. From the twenty-second week, the fetus is able to taste amniotic fluid and can suck its thumb.

Karl Abraham distinguished the passive sucking of the first stage of oral activity from the sadistic pleasure in the second, after teething, and he developed the concept of a cannibalistic oral stage that Freud discussed after 1915. René Spitz accorded sucking a principal role, which he integrated into his global approach of the genesis of the object. The "primal cavity" (Spitz, 1955) serves as a juncture for activities occurring around the mouth, tongue, and hand; sucking thus occurs at the juncture of inside and outside.

Michael Balint, after objectively recording the breast-feeding of about one hundred infants, maintained that rhythmic sucking is one of the most archaic qualities of human life and that each infant has an individual rhythm that adumbrates character traits. John Bowlby (1969) challenged Freud's concept of "anaclitic" object choice as well as the primacy of sucking, suggesting instead that an innate need for social contact is at the root of attachment-seeking behavior. Sucking is only one of several instinctive behaviors at the child's disposal; others include grabbing, following with the eyes, crying, smiling, and rooting behavior. Bowlby, while questioning the primacy of the oral stage and sucking, did not take into consideration intrapsychic processes; new approaches to understanding these issues developed out of work on autism.

Frances Tustin, in Autism and Childhood Psychosis (1973), has suggested that the pain endured by autistic children in their experiences of bodily separateness as "amputation" would include an unbearable disjunction of the mouth and nipple. Sucking prevents the intolerable pain of this disjunction and thereby protects infants from anxieties of catastrophic separation. Donald Meltzer believed that the infant may experience the nipple, while sucking at the breast, as an eye-breast, or primitive, archaic superego.

Geneviève Haag has suggested that the thumb-in-the-mouth forms part of what she calls the "corporeal identification" with "assembly along the median." This "self-junction" which infants create via the thumb-in-mouth represents a kind of clinging to self that precedes auto-erotic activity. According to her, the eye-to-eye visual exchanges that accompany breast-feeding go on to form the early feeling of being enveloped, the internal center of early attachment.

Whether conceived as auto-sensual or autoerotic behavior, bodily symbolization, intracorporal identification, or incorporation, sucking is an activity that the understanding of which, ever since Freud, has been central to attempts at understanding normal and pathological development in the human infant.

Anne-Marie Mairesse

See also: Ambivalence; Anaclisis/anaclictic; Autoeroticism; Breastfeeding; Cruelty; Eroticism, oral; Erotogenic zone; Libidinal development; Oral stage; Orality; Organ Pleasure; Psychosexual development; Self-preservation.


Bowlby, John. (1971). Attachment and loss. London: Hogarth; Penguin Books. (Original work published 1969)

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1916-17a [1915-17). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. Part I, SE, 15; Part II, SE, 16.

. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

Haag, Geneviève. (1991). Nature de quelques identifications dans l'image du corps. Hypothèses. Journal de la psychanalyse de l'enfant, 10: 73-92.

Spitz, René. (1955). The primal cavity: A contribution to the genesis of perception. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 10, 215-40.

Tustin, Frances. (1973). Autism and childhood psychosis. New York: Jason Aronson.