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Which is Better: Pacifiers or Thumbs?

No matter what yours or your infant’s preference is for soothing, there’s judgement on either side of the fence. Some parents are strongly against thumb-sucking while other vehemently oppose pacifiers. But babies need to suckle and there's not necessarily a right or wrong answer here. The trick, like everything else, is to figure out your baby’s preferences for soothing when he's a newborn.

Why do Babies Suckle?

Sucking is one of your baby’s earliest reflexes. It starts in the womb. Babies will suck and swallow amniotic fluid and sometimes even find their thumbs. This reflex is rooted in the neurological system and ensures that when your baby is born that he will get the nutrition he needs in order to thrive. Sucking at the breast or even being held close and suckling a bottle promotes bonding and comfort. When an infant is suckling, he is getting his nutritive and emotional needs met.

The sucking reflex is not discriminating right away. Sure they'll develop a preference to breast or bottle later on and sometimes even prefer a certain breast, but as newborns they will suck on whatever is presented to them. Tickle their lips with an object and they will root and suck seeking nourishment and comfort.

Some babies will find their thumbs. Others will suck on their fists and other digits, while still others rely on their caregivers to offer an object like a pacifier or finger to suckle, and some are okay just suckling when they eat.

Pacifiers or dummies go back thousands of years. They have been made of clay, pearl, coral, and more recently rubber. For babies who have high suckling needs and have not found their thumb, this is when a pacifier is useful.  So, which is best?

Pacifier Versus the Thumb

I’m sure someone will want to fight me on this, but really they’re both okay. Like anything else, there are examples of extreme cases when things become problematic. But in the majority of cases, both are really okay. It all comes down to preference and what works best for you and your baby. It's time to end the judgmental conversations and look at the data.

Nipple Confusion or Pros at Both?

Yes, nipple confusion is a real thing and you can read our blog on that here. That doesn't mean that your child can never use a pacifier. It used to be recommended that breast-fed babies never get a pacifier for fear of nipple confusion and/ or early weaning. Cincinnati mom, Amy Meyer, said that she was scared to death to give her son a pacifier, but he needed extra suckling. To avoid a pacifier she offered her infant a fingertip to suck on. However, when other people were holding him she didn't want their fingers in his mouth, so at three weeks old she decided to try a pacifier and she's glad she did. “It really worked a lot better for him,” she said.

La Leche League International suggests not introducing rubber nipples for at least the first month of life. However even this recommendation has been modified to be more flexible and accommodate the individual needs of each child. Now the recommendation is if your baby is well-established in breast-feeding then introducing the pacifier should not interfere with that success. The National Institutes of Health initially reported studies that showed early weaning in those who had been given pacifiers. But a closer look at the data revealed that other factors were in play and that early weaning was not necessarily attributed to the use of pacifiers.

In fact, for babies who need to acquire the skill of bottle feeding pumped breast milk, a pacifier can help the transition. Using a rubber nipple is a new skill, and sometimes the longer you wait, the harder it is for the baby to learn this new skill. And the older he is, the more rooted he is in his preferences.

Astra Groskaufmanis of Ottawa, Ontario says she couldn't get any of her kids to suck their thumbs or a pacifier. “I really would've liked the break,” she said.  Her youngest girl never would take a bottle either. Her daughter went straight from breast to sippy cup at 15 months old.

Increased Infections

Pacifiers have been linked to increased ear infections. The reason being that continuous sucking produces excess saliva. And drooling babies already have excess saliva. The excess saliva gets into the eustachian tube and causes inflammation. The same would happen with a passionate thumb-sucker. Also take into account the ick factor. Both pacifiers and thumbs carry lots of germs. How many germs depends on the diligence of the parent to clean them. But to keep things in perspective, this is again a time when babies are putting everything into their mouths as a way of learning about the world around them.

Dental & Medical

We have all heard the harsh warnings about how babies with extra sucking needs will ruin their teeth! This has been blown out of proportion. Research shows there is no need to worry so long as the sucking habit is abandoned by age four. So relax. And actually the use of a pacifier in painful medical procedures has shown to have a calming effect on the infant and help them cope. Let your baby suckle.

Pacifiers & SIDS


To go one step farther, knew research shows that the use of a pacifier will actually reduce their risk of SIDS.

The reasons are not exactly clear, however the National Institute of Health reports these theories:

“One recent study suggests that pacifiers lower the auditory arousal threshold. They may provide a mechanical barrier to rolling over into the prone position. Sucking on a pacifier keeps the tongue forward maintaining upper airway patency. An infant who is soothed by a pacifier may not move as often during sleep, thus limiting the chance of becoming covered by blankets. Others postulate that pacifiers might reduce gastroesophageal reflux and subsequent apnea. It has also been suggested that pacifier use could lead to slight carbon dioxide retention and increase the respiratory drive.”

Controlling the Habit

For those who prefer their child uses a pacifier instead of sucking their thumb control of the habit is typically what drives their decision. This was true for Nicole England of Michigan. She wanted the control of being able to take the pacifier away when the time came. Her daughter, Alexis (pictured above) wanted to suck her thumb. She would reject the pacifier in favor of her thumb. However with a little persistence and continuing to introduce the pacifier to her daughter, Alexis took to it after about a week.

Marsha Wise from Maryland on the other hand said, “I had two thumb suckers and one pacifier baby. I preferred my thumb suckers. You don't have to search the crib at 3am or the mini-van floor for thumbs.”

When it comes to breaking the habit, don't worry, both have their own set of challenges. That's a topic will cover on another day.

No matter what you choose, rest assured that there will be challenges. It's called parenting. Make your choices based on what's best for you, your baby, and your family. At the end of it all you'll be okay and so will they.


Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer and mother of three. If you liked this posting please follow her on Twitter @writerbonnie or like her on Facebook at for more great info on Raising Kids. 

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