Pacifiers or Thumbs: Which is best for your baby?

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Babies are born with the urge to suck, and new parents soon learn that offering a pacifier or encouraging thumb sucking can effectively calm their fussy baby.

But the jury is still out on which method is best.

Kim Junk has been a pediatric nurse for Dr. Jack Roseberry of Westerville for more than 30 years. Junk said their office does not encourage parents to use one method over another.

"Babies in general need pacifiers or thumbs for a soothing effect, but it can be difficult to break the habit," Junk said. "Over time, both can lead to dental and orthodontic issues."

So should parents encourage one method over the other?

If you are a new or expectant mom, consider the insights of two experienced Columbus moms who've been through it all.

Julie Hines, a Lewis Center mother of three, said two of her boys used pacifiers and her youngest sucked his thumb.

When she was in the hospital with her first son, the nurse recommended she try the pacifier.

"He took it without any problems and no nipple confusion," she said. "When he didn't have it, all he wanted to do was eat."

Hines was glad her first two babies preferred pacifiers because she knew at some point she could take them away.

"The challenge was keeping enough pacifiers clean and accessible," Hines said.

She put a handful of pacifiers in the crib at night, and in the car seat on the way to day care.

"Inevitably, they'd throw the pacifiers out of the crib and out of the car seat, then scream because they didn't have them," she said, adding that she used a pacifier clip - a ribbon with a pacifier on one end and a clip for a shirt on the other - to keep the pacifier within reach.

The accessibility of thumb sucking was definitely a perk for Kristi Sweyer, a Gahanna mother of three. Because she chose to breastfeed her babies, Sweyer worried about nipple confusion and was glad they found their thumbs on their own. She never had to worry about pacifiers being thrown out of their cribs at night, but keeping their hands germ-free was challenging, she admitted.

"I tried to keep their hands clean," Sweyer said, "but little kids touch everything. They'd stick their thumbs in their mouths so quickly."

So while the Sweyer babies were more independent at nighttime and during car trips, they paid the price when it was time to wean.

"My oldest son just didn't want to give it up," she said. He was five before he stopped sucking his thumb.

He finally stopped when she showed him pictures of kids with dental problems that resulted from sucking their thumbs for too long.

"It was shocking," Sweyer said. "He didn't want his teeth to look like that."

Junk agreed it can be a challenge for parents to get their thumb-sucking children to break the habit.

"The thumb is a tough one," she said. "Some parents use distractions and have had some success with it. There are products you can buy that make the thumb taste bad and there are old wives' tales about using hot sauce, but they generally don't work."

Some parents are lucky and their kids stop on their own. Hines' youngest son stopped sucking his thumb when he started cutting teeth.

Junk said pacifier weaning is generally easier.

"We tell parents that when it's time to stop using the pacifier, make a pact with everyone involved in the child's care," she said. "Then just throw them away."

Hines weaned her boys from the pacifier when they "graduated" to the toddler room at day care. They used them only at night, and eventually stopped using them altogether.

When it comes to introducing pacifiers or thumbs to a new baby, some moms may have a preference. If your baby chooses a method that is not the one you had encouraged, relax and know that neither has long-term effects if used in moderation.