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Pacifier vs. Thumb

By Heather Zimmerman, M.D.

Pacifier vs Thumb image

​Sucking on a pacifier, thumb or finger can be comforting for a baby. Many parents prefer the convenience of the thumb so they don’t have to scramble in the middle of the night or stop on the side of the road to retrieve a dropped pacifier. While both thumb or finger sucking and pacifiers are acceptable methods of soothing an upset infant, there are more benefits to using a pacifier.

Support for Pacifier Use

  • If a child does not stop sucking on his or her thumb or fingers once permanent teeth come in, a severe overbite can result. A pacifier puts less pressure on the teeth, creating less of an overbite than the thumb.
  • Children who suck their thumbs run the risk of the skin breaking down and becoming infected. In serious cases, this can lead to a required plastic surgery.
  • When a baby sucks on his or her thumb or fingers, parents can have a difficult time stopping the behavior. Although curbing either habit can be emotional for everyone involved, the use of a pacifier can be controlled more easily than a thumb or finger.

Pacifier Use Timeline

In order for a baby to accept a pacifier over his or her thumb, it must be introduced during the first two months. After that time, the urge to suck decreases. Medical literature suggests that if a baby is not a thumb- or finger-sucker by 1 month, pacifiers can be introduced for SIDS prevention. Several different types of pacifiers may have to be tested before a baby finds one he or she likes.

Once your baby begins to crawl, begin to wean him or her off the pacifier. At this time, speech begins to develop and a pacifier may interfere with progress. The following are a few tips to ensure your child doesn't walk around all day with a pacifier in his mouth:

  • Do not offer a pacifier every time your baby cries, especially during the first 6 months. There are many other reasons a young baby cries, including gas, sleepiness, overstimulation, etc.
  • Comfort your older infant by cuddling before offering a pacifier.
  • Keep the pacifier in your child's crib after the age of 15 months, 18 months at the latest, only allowing it during naptime and bedtime. Once asleep, take the pacifier out of his or her mouth.
  • Provide some other type of security object for your child while he or she is awake, such as a stuffed animal or soft blanket.

By the time your child turns 2, he or she should be ready to give up the pacifier completely. Do not try to take it away during a time that is stressful for your child, such as moving, starting daycare or when a parent is away on business. Offer your child the option of throwing away the pacifier or his or her own or leaving it out for the "pacifier fairy." Be sure to give your child lots of praise for being a big girl or boy.

Pacifier Safety Precautions

  • Use only a one-piece pacifier from a retailer. A pacifier made at home from a bottle nipple can become lodged in your baby's throat and cause choking.
  • Do not use a string to keep the pacifier around baby's neck – this could cause strangulation. Instead, buy a short pacifier clip that attaches to your child's clothing.
  • Rinse the pacifier if it drops to the floor and each time your baby finishes using it.
  • Do not clean or hold the pacifier in your own mouth. This can lead to early cavities and tooth decay for your baby by giving them the cavity-causing bacteria that are already in an adult mouth.
  • If the pacifier tears or becomes damaged, discard it and replace it with a new one.