Pacifier vs. Thumb: The Great Debate

pacifier vs. fingers

There are several big parenting debates in the world of pediatrics, but one of the commonly recurring themes in my personal practice is that of pacifier versus thumbs (or fingers!). There is a great divide among parents. And all feel very strongly on their chosen path. Which side of the fence do you stand on?

The Origin

Our kids enter this world pre-programmed with a suck reflex.  It helps them eat and is a great self-soothing technique. Our babies get comfort from eating.  They will suck on anything that comes close to their mouths. If they are tired, scared, cold, or generally overstimulated, this is a go-to method for them to feel better.

The Argument for Pacifiers

I have watched parents work very hard to try to get a baby to take a pacifier. It is a great soothing mechanism. I spent an embarrassing amount of money on pacifiers hoping my girls would catch on. They didn’t.  The biggest reason that parents share with me on their preference for pacifier use is that they can take away the pacifier when their kid is older. And they can’t take away the fingers.

Benefits of pacifier use

  1.  Great for self-soothing when it is not time to eat yet
  2.  Pacifier use can decrease risk of SIDS (you can check out this pubmed article here.)
  3. When you are ready to wean your baby off the pacifier, you can have the paci fairy come steal them away one by one

Risks of pacifier use

  1.  If used for longer than 2 years, can affect the shape of a kid’s teeth
  2.  It is difficult to talk with a pacifier in your mouth. Some children are so attached to their pacis that they will grunt and point at stuff rather than using words

The Argument for Thumbs (and fingers!)

Some babies come to the world with a solid preference for sucking on their fingers or thumbs. To me, this is a total win. Because your fingers aren’t going to fall out of the crib at night. And you can’t lose them!

Benefits of Thumb-sucking

  1.  Can’t lose them!  Many paci parents will sprinkle pacifiers around the crib at night in an effort to reduce crying from the pacifier inevitably falling from the crib.
  2. Great for self soothing. Which is something we need our kids to learn.
  3. May decrease allergy to dust mites over time.  I’ll admit, this one was new to me. But you can read about the 2016 study here.

Risks of Thumb-sucking

  1. If continued for too long, constant sucking of thumbs and fingers can lead to physical changes in the position of the child’s teeth leading to expensive orthodontic work
  2. Sometimes a difficult habit to break if continues past the first year (or two) of life

The Reality

Non-nutritive sucking is a normal and natural reflex for babies. And we don’t really need to work that hard to influence their preference. Like many other things, this is something that most of us stress too much on. The vast majority of kids will give up pacifiers and thumb-sucking entirely on their own, with or without our intervention.

The Rules

For kids who have moved into the toddler years and are still attached to their thumbs or pacifiers, there are a few simple rules you can follow to reinforce good habits.

  1.  No walking around with the pacifier in the mouth. By about a year old, let your toddler know that the pacifier if for bedtime and naptimes only. You can make a special place for the pacifiers to “sleep” during the day and let your little tuck them in for the day.
  2. If your toddler is sucking on their thumb during the day and you’d like to minimize the activity, don’t bring attention to it! Instead, hand them something to do with their hands like coloring or play-doh. Often, thumbsucking will become a habit when they are bored. Commenting on it may only reinforce the behavior.

Author: Dr. Jenny Seawell

Dr. Jennifer Seawell is a board certified pediatrician currently practicing in Tennessee. She is married with 2 daughters aged 7 and 13.

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