Babies are born with a strong need to suckle. Many get satisfied by the breast, but some find comfort in a pacifier or their own thumbs. We asked experts on which is ultimately better for your baby to use.
Does it matter what Baby prefers?
When your baby is a newborn and begins to find comfort at something other than your breast or a bottle, it may be a huge relief for you. For example, your baby may now be able to rest in a bassinet, nipping on a pacifier or his thumb, instead of lounging on your chest during naptime — so you can take a quick shower. However, as the weeks go by, you may start to worry about your little one’s reliance and what this means for the future.
What are the dangers of suckling on a thumb or pacifier long-term, and when should you encourage him to give up the habit?
Born to suckle
Babies are born wired with a need to suckle. This instinct ensures survival — a baby who lacks this instinct or ability will have trouble getting fed. In some babies, the act of feeding himself satisfies this need, but others do not experience this and remain fussy even with a full tummy. The sucking reflex, then, becomes not only a means to be fed, but a way for Baby to self-soothe.
“The strong sucking reflex is obviously necessary for a newborn's survival, but sucking is also a primal means for a baby to comfort herself,” says Susan Glaser, author of Who’s the Boss: Moving Families from Conflict to Collaboration, and Baby and Toddler Sleep Solutions for Dummies. “Sucking also appears to be important as a means of calming a baby’s developing nervous and digestive systems.”
Parents often wonder if the thumb (or fingers) is better than a pacifier — or vice versa. Experts agree that neither comes across as a clear winner in this battle, but each does have its advantages and disadvantages. “The thumbs (or fingers) do have the advantage of never getting lost, but this advantage in infancy becomes a disadvantage as the child grows,” Susan told us. “A child can’t ‘give up’ their own fingers, and children who are thumb suckers generally do so for a longer period of time than children who use a pacifier.”
So, parents have to weigh the decision, and the decision is often made when Mom and Dad are sleep-deprived — it’s wonderful when the baby can pop her fingers or thumb back into her mouth instead of waiting for a parent to wake up and find a pacifier for her, but when she’s 2 and still sucking away, you can only take one away.
When to ditch the habit
The pacifier or thumb-sucking habit must come to an end at some point — usually by age 4, when tooth damage can occur. But nixing a lifelong habit at that age is a pretty big and painful task. Dr. William Sears, a popular attachment parenting pediatrician, tells parents that thumb-sucking frequency naturally dwindles between ages 2 and 4, and suggests redirecting the habit by around age 3 (read his tips here).
As far as pacifiers go, experts recommend stopping that habit earlier, rather than later. “All parents who come to rely on the pacifier ultimately wonder how long they should allow their baby to use it,” explained Susan. “The answer is found in the word ‘baby.’” She suggests thinking of the pacifier in terms of wants versus needs — often, a baby needs a pacifier, where a toddler generally wants it. “When a baby moves into toddlerhood she is ready to learn other, more ‘mature’ methods of self-calming.”
Above all, do not shame or ridicule your child if she has trouble leaving this remnant of her babyhood behind. She is growing up, and growing up is hard on little ones. Guide and comfort her as she moves to this next stage of life.