Dear Tzippora,

We had a new baby, and my older daughter, who is almost seven, has just started sucking her thumb. She is way too old for this kind of behavior. What does this mean, and what can we do about it?

Mother of a Thumb-Sucking Big Girl

Dear Mother of a Thumb-Sucking Big Girl,

You are most likely correct in assuming that your older daughter's behavior is connected to the birth of your new baby. It is quite normal for older siblings to exhibit regressive behaviors following the birth of a new sibling.

The arrival of a new sibling involves a period of adjustment and heightened anxiety for the entire family. Your daughter's behavior reflects her internal struggle to establish what this new arrival means to her, and how it affects her own place in the family. New babies receive a lot of attention and affection, and it is natural to fantasize about being the recipient of such an outpouring of love.

You may also notice her asking you to do things for her at this time that she is normally able and willing to do for herself, such as dressing her in pajamas or brushing her teeth. While this may be quite annoying to you at this time because you yourself are busy with the new baby, by agreeing nevertheless to do these simple tasks for her, you will reassure her that her own place in the family has not been usurped.

Reassure her that you love her, and cherish her, and that despite being a big girl now, she will always be "your baby." Explain to her that she does not need to be a baby to be your baby. Allow her to sit on your lap. Tell her stories of her own babyhood, or show her baby pictures of herself.

Balance this with a discussion of all the fun things that big girls can do that babies cannot do, such as jumping rope, collecting stickers, or choosing their own clothes.

Do not make a big deal out of her regression. Try to look the other way, and control your impulse to tell her to take her thumb out of her mouth. Allowing this phase to play itself out and run its course naturally will help it to pass quickly and without undue tension or power struggles.

There is no need to pathologize her behavior. Rather, recognize this phase as her way of explaining to you that she still needs you. Be patient with her. Growing up is not a linear process. Both in our physical development as well as our spiritual development, the process is characterized by movement forward tempered by small movements backward.

In Proverbs (24:16), King Solomon says, "A tzaddik [righteous person] falls seven times—but arises." Such is the nature of the ladder of spiritual perfection. If even righteous people regress at times, surely we can allow our children the same understanding as well.