Thumb Sucking vs. Using Pacifiers

Parenting Issues

An older child sucking her thumb while reading a book.
The real problem is prolonged thumb or pacifier sucking.... Photo by John Carleton

It used to be that parents were discouraged from using pacifiers, since there was the worry that they interfere with breast feeding and prolonged use could cause speech delays and dental problems.

But since the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with new recommendations and stated that using a pacifier might be protective against SIDS, more babies are using them.

Parents and Pacifiers

Parenting experts have long known that nonnutritive sucking, such as sucking on a finger, thumb, or pacifier, is normal behavior for most infants and young children and according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, it is "associated with their need to satisfy the urge for contact and security."

Most infants don't just like using a pacifier though. Some prefer sucking on their fingers or thumb. So is using a pacifier better than allowing your baby to suck on her fingers or thumb? That is the question that many parents are asking now.

Pacifiers Are Good

The biggest argument that most experts use in preferring pacifiers over thumbs and fingers is that they say that you can simply take away a pacifier if a child develops a prolonged pacifier sucking habit. On the other hand, your child's fingers or thumb are right there as long as she wants to continue to suck on them.

Being able to take away pacifiers may work in theory, but many parents of prolonged pacifier users have a hard time simply taking them away.

Some experts also argue that 'orthodontic' pacifiers are less likely to cause dental problems, however the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry states that "thumb, finger and pacifier sucking all affect the teeth essentially the same way."

Also, using a pacifier is no guarantee that your child won't become a thumb sucker. Rosemarie Van Norman, in her book 'Helping the Thumb-Sucking Child,' found that 34% of prolonged thumb suckers "began habitual sucking behavior on a pacifier."

Fingers and Thumb Sucking Are Better?

The main reason to prefer finger and thumb sucking over a pacifier is that your infant doesn't need you to continuously put her pacifier in her mouth whenever she needs it to soothe herself.

Once your baby learns to find them, her fingers or thumb will always be available, so that she can really use them for self-soothing.

I have always had some concern that parents who constantly put a pacifier, which is often clipped to their shirt, in their child's mouth every time they cry, actually contribute to prolonged pacifier habits.

Many experts do report that thumb sucking habits are harder to break and thumb suckers are more likely to develop prolonged habits.

Most importantly, the new SIDS recommendations have just been about pacifier use. There haven't been any studies to show that finger and thumb sucking offers the same benefit in reducing the risk of SIDS, which would be a big reason to prefer pacifier use.

Thumbs vs Pacifiers

While it is nice to think about choosing whether your baby will use a pacifier or suck her thumb, in reality, you can't usually make that choice for your baby and they may simply prefer one or the other. In fact, some parents can't get their babies to take either.

And the fact that thumb sucking and pacifier use can turn into prolonged habits, sometimes into first grade or beyond, may lead you to think that you should avoid both, but remember that the American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend that you 'consider offering a pacifier at nap time and bedtime' to reduce your infant's risk of SIDS.

And keep in mind that the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry states that sucking on fingers, thumbs, and pacifiers, "is completely normal for babies and young children" and that most children stop before and "no harm is done to their teeth or jaws."

So remember that using a pacifier, or finger/thumb sucking if that is what your baby prefers, is normal in a baby's first year and the majority of kids give it up easily.

The 'problem' isn't really thumb sucking or using a pacifier, it is when they become prolonged sucking habits.

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