Sucking is a necessary reflex that gets a baby food, but it’s also an inborn need. For example, fetuses often suck their thumbs in the womb, where getting food is not an issue.
In general, thumb- and finger-sucking in an infant is not something to worry about. You have little control over it, anyway, since those fingers and thumbs are attached. It’s not a sign of emotional problems, and it does help some babies sleep. Thumb-sucking won’t delay your child’s language development, and it won’t cause any harm to her mouth or teeth if it is stopped by age 4 or 5. Most children give it up on their own well before reaching school age.
If your infant sucks her thumb, first make sure she is getting enough to eat. If she wants to nurse a little longer or wants a little more formula, let her eat. Once you’ve established that the sucking isn’t about food, allow her the comfort of her fingers or thumb.
Thumb-sucking that persists beyond age 4 or 5 may become problematic for you or your child. You may be embarrassed by it, or your child might be when she discovers that other children her age don’t suck their thumbs. She could develop dental problems if the habit persists, and there also is the danger of thumb infection from the constant moisture of the mouth. At this age, your child will probably be very motivated to give up the habit.
Whether to use a pacifier is something many parents struggle with. Unlike thumb- or finger-sucking, which is generally your baby’s choice, introducing a pacifier is your choice. Pacifiers do have some advantages: They satisfy the sucking need, offer comfort and may help some babies sleep. On the other hand, pacifiers can become a crutch for parents, who might find it easier to pop one into the baby’s mouth rather than take the time to find out what the baby wants or try other forms of comfort. In addition, introducing a pacifier means at some point you’ll have to take it away. And if you put your baby to bed with one, she might wake up repeatedly when she loses it during the night.
If you decide to use a pacifier, make sure it is all one piece so it cannot break apart and become a choking hazard. Some experts prefer orthodontic pacifiers, which may limit any mouth distortion that could occur. Have several pacifiers on hand so there is always a clean one available, and wash them frequently. Never attach a pacifier to your baby’s clothing, crib, playpen or stroller. This might seem like a good way to keep the pacifier clean, but babies can be strangled by the cord.
Before you put the pacifier into your baby’s mouth, ask yourself if it is really sucking your baby wants. The pacifier should not be a substitute for feedings, but it might be useful if your baby is full and just isn’t finished sucking. You might want to try comforting your baby in other ways before turning to the pacifier.
A breast-fed baby should not be given a pacifier until nursing is well established to avoid nipple confusion. A pacifier may be most useful in infants 2 to 4 months old, when the need to suck seems to be strongest. Your baby might lose interest after this time frame — unless the pacifier has become a sleeping aid.
Like thumb-sucking, a pacifier should not harm your baby’s mouth or teeth if it is discontinued before age 4 or 5. Once your child is old enough to understand, the pacifier can be given up willingly in exchange for money, as baby teeth are, or perhaps relinquished in a “graduation ceremony,” where the pacifier is exchanged for something more grown-up.