Thumb sucking: Better or worse than pacifiers?

Parents often ask the question: which is better? Pacifiers or thumb sucking? Both help soothe and comfort your child, but both will also have negative dental effects down the line.

An infant’s sucking need begins in the womb. Olivia started sucking her thumb in utero! Placing a thumb or finger in the mouth can provide children with a sense of security during difficult times and may also help induce sleep. Children who rest their thumbs passively in their mouths are less likely to experience dental & jaw changes than those who vigorously suck their thumbs.

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Pros and Cons of Pacifier vs. Thumb sucking

Pacifier Pros

  • Reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
  • Easier to wean

Pacifier Cons

  • Increased risk of otitis media (ear infection)
  • Potential negative effect on breast feeding in the first month
  • Potential safety risk

Thumb sucking Pros

  • A natural reflex

Thumb sucking Cons

  • Convenient and always available
  • May expose child to germs
  • More likely to develop into a prolonged sucking habit
  • Harder to wean

Why is thumb sucking a harder habit to break?

Thumb sucking is harder to break for a couple of reasons:

  1. Unlike a pacifier, you can’t take it away to control the weaning process
  2. A thumb is always available and can be used at all times
  3. Less social stigma at school than a pacifier, so there is less social incentive for your child to stop
  4. Requires your child to be emotionally ready to stop on their own

How can thumb sucking affect my child’s teeth and jaws?

Thumb sucking can lead to a number of developmental effects on the teeth including:

  • Anterior open bite
  • Posterior cross bite
  • Misalignment of the teeth
  • Protruding front teeth

The sucking motion can also impact your child’s jaws. Thumb sucking can restrict the growth of the jaw, leading to a narrow upper jaw. It can also lead to improper development of correct swallowing pattern and tongue position.

Many of these effects can be seen by the age of 2 years, and the AAPD recommends weaning by 3 years to avoid permanent effects. You can check out my latest guide to finger and thumb weaning, along with tools and toys that help with weaning.

A MOM’S PERSPECTIVE

We noticed Olivia had non-nutritive sucking needs very early on when 1) she constantly stayed at the breast, 2) she started sucking her thumb. We made a personal choice to introduce the pacifier to replace her thumb-sucking. Why did we do that?  We found it easier to control the weaning process with the introduction of the pacifier over the thumb. When we tried to wean off the pacifier at 10 months, Olivia went BACK to her thumb. So we made another decision to re-introduce the pacifier. At 15 months, we are gradually and successfully weaning off the pacifier!

If your child does not have a sucking need, there is no need to encourage either pacifiers or thumb sucking, which can lead to difficult habits to break. Many children’s sucking instinct is satisfied through breast or bottle feeding.

Every child is different & unique, so no matter if your child is using a pacifier or their thumb, the weaning journey must be tailored to YOUR individual child.

What other questions do you have about pacifiers or thumb-sucking?

Drop them below! 👇🏼.

1 thought on “Thumb sucking: Better or worse than pacifiers?”

  1. 6 month old finger sucker. Should I transition to a pacifier or is it too late? There’s no effective weaning practices for an infant that small and I don’t want to wait longer.

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