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Sucking on a finger, thumb, or pacifier is normal for most babies and young children. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), thumb- or finger-sucking and using a pacifier are associated with your baby’s need to satisfy their urge for contact and security.

We answer your questions about sucking on a finger, thumb, or pacifier — like why your baby would prefer either one and if there are possible side effects.

In this article, you’ll also discover when and how to phase out these habits!

Table Of Contents

Why Do Babies Use Pacifiers Or Suck Their Thumbs Or Fingers?

baby sucking on fingers

Your little one developed the sucking reflex early on. You may even have an ultrasound picture of your baby sucking their thumb or fingers in your womb!

Sucking is a natural reflex, so it’s completely normal for your infant to suck their fingers or a pacifier. What’s more, this sucking action makes your baby feel happy and secure! It’s a way for your infant to self-soothe.

When your baby uses their sucking reflex, it helps them adjust to a changing environment, like when they’re separated from you or when they’re in an unfamiliar place.

Because the sucking reflex helps your baby feel safe, it also helps them relax...which can help them sleep! Another way you can help your baby relax? Massage them with Mustela’s Baby Oil. Our oil stimulates your baby’s senses and prepares them for bedtime.

Finally, if your baby is close to four-months-old — around the age of teething — they may find that sucking their fingers helps to soothe their sore gums as well.

What You Need To Know About Pacifiers

baby sucking on pacifier

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of pacifiers, we should mention that, if you’re breastfeeding, you may want to wait until you and your baby have established a good rhythm before introducing a pacifier, which can take three to four weeks.

Why? Your little one may get confused with the sucking patterns and start to use you as a pacifier instead!

(Tip: In those early days of breastfeeding, try Mustela’s Nursing Comfort Balm! The soothing and restorative nipple cream keeps your skin comfortable while nursing! It also moisturizes and protects your nipples, eases discomfort, and helps to replenish and restore your skin during and after breastfeeding.)

It’s also important to keep in mind that some babies reject pacifiers, and that’s completely OK! Don’t force it if your little one isn’t interested.

Pacifier Tips

Trust us, you will play hide-and-seek with your baby’s pacifier at some point, so keep a few extras on-hand as backups!

And before giving the pacifier to your baby, always make sure it’s clean and sanitized because your baby’s immune system isn’t fully mature until they're about six months old.

Additionally, keep an eye out for the wear and tear on your baby’s pacifier. Once your infant starts teething, they may use it more as a teether than anything else, which can cause rips and tears

Lastly, choose a pacifier that is an appropriate size for your baby’s age. A pacifier that’s too small or too large for your little one’s mouth may not comfort them at all. Even worse, it may pose a safety risk.

Now that you know about the basics of pacifiers, let’s take a look at both the pros and cons of letting your little one use a pacifier.

Pros

When comparing the pacifier to sucking on fingers or thumbs, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of each. Here are a few pros of using a pacifier:

  • May lower your baby’s risk of SIDS
  • Easier to take away when the time comes

Cons

  • Increases the risk of ear infections, especially after six months
  • May negatively affect breastfeeding
  • Causes more disturbances at night (When the pacifier falls out of your baby’s mouth while they’re sleeping, they wake up crying.)
  • May have adverse dental effects if used after the age of two

What You Need To Know About Finger- And Thumb-Sucking

baby sucking thumb

If your baby doesn’t take a pacifier, thumb- and finger-sucking is another option for them. With finger- and thumb-sucking, your baby doesn’t have to continually pick something up whenever they want to soothe themselves.

Compared to a pacifier, sucking fingers or the thumb is a harder habit to break, which is obviously on our list of cons. But before we talk about those, let’s take a look at some of the pros.

Pros

  • Always available
  • An easy way to help your baby cope with teething

Cons

  • Adds germs to your baby’s mouth
  • May have adverse dental effects if used after the age of two
  • No evidence that it can reduce your baby’s risk of SIDS
  • May leave a sore on fingers or thumb (Try our Cicastela Moisture Recovery Cream to treat this area! It keeps your baby’s skin comfortable and relieves any skin discomfort by
  • delivering cooling hydration.)

Which Is Better: A Pacifier Or Thumb-Sucking?

Now that you’ve seen the pros and cons of each, you’re likely wondering which one is better. Should you encourage your little one to keep sucking their fingers or thumb? Or should you offer a pacifier?

The answer is that either one works just fine. Research doesn’t show a particular advantage of one over the other.

Your baby probably already decided which (if any) route they will take. And even if you strongly prefer one type of self-soothing over the other, your little one might not agree with your decision.

No matter how hard you might try to replace their thumb with a pacifier, they may still suck on their fingers. And that’s OK.

When To Phase Out Pacifiers And Finger- And Thumb-Sucking

baby sleeping while sucking on pacifier

Like most parents, you might be concerned about when your baby should cut this habit and if using a pacifier or sucking their thumb or fingers is harmful in the long-run.

Using a pacifier and letting your baby suck their thumb or fingers beyond their fourth birthday can cause dental problems for them in the future. For example, it can affect the shape of your child’s mouth and how their teeth line up.

The good news is that most babies eventually outgrow their pacifier or thumb-sucking and give it up easily if you intervene early enough. Most children will stop on their own between the ages of 2 and 4.

However, the longer you wait, the more difficult breaking the habit will become. Because of this, some parents choose to take a more active role in the process. If you decide to go this route, consider starting between 18 months and your child’s second birthday.

Additionally, as we mentioned above, sucking a pacifier is an easier habit to cut than thumb- or finger-sucking because of one obvious reason — the pacifier isn’t attached to your baby’s body!

But don’t worry! Whether your baby sucks their thumb, their fingers, or a pacifier, breaking the habit can be done.

How To Phase Out Pacifiers and Finger- Or Thumb-Sucking

baby sleeping while sucking thumb

We know your journey as a parent sometimes involves making difficult decisions. And taking something away from your baby — like a pacifier — is one of them.

That’s why we’ve come up with a few ways to help you and your baby during this time! First, we’ll look at some general strategies you can use, then we’ll look specifically at tips for stopping the pacifier habit, and finally, we’ll tackle thumb-sucking.

General Tips For Stopping Sucking Habits

Whether your little one sucks a finger or a pacifier, these tips can help break the habit. Don’t feel like you have to try them all at once. Pick and choose the ones you think will work best for your child.

Offer Praise And Excitement

Rather than focusing on the times when you’re not seeing much progress, focus on the times when you do!

Every time your baby successfully handles a situation without having to use their pacifier, acknowledge their progress. If you notice your little one hasn’t sucked on their fingers in a while, let them know you noticed!

Even young babies can pick up on the meaning when you show excitement. Praise is the incentive they need to drop this habit!

Keep Your Baby’s Hands Busy

If your baby is distracted, they won’t even think about putting their fingers in their mouth or reaching for their pacifier!

Use the diversion method by refocusing your little one’s attention on something to keep them busy and keep their mind off of their habit!

Gradually Wean Your Baby

Obviously, you don’t want to take this habit away from your baby cold-turkey. That wouldn’t be good for anyone involved!

Before attempting to wean your little one from their pacifier or fingers, explain why it’s time for them to put the pacifier away or stop sucking their thumb — if they’re old enough to understand.

Start with taking the pacifier away during nap time first, meaning your little one is only getting their pacifier at night. After a few days of no pacifier at nap time, take it away at night, too. It may be difficult the first night or two, but stick with it!

And if your child is a thumb- or finger-sucker, try putting a bandage or sock over your baby’s thumb or fingers at night to help them drop this habit.

Pay Attention To Their Emotional Cues

By the time your baby is a toddler, they’ve learned that sucking helps them feel better. When they’re feeling anxious or scared, they’re more likely to suck.

Spend a few days tracking your child’s sucking and see if you can find any patterns. For example, maybe they want their pacifier in the car on the way to daycare drop-off. Or perhaps they always stick their thumb in their mouth when you’re out shopping.

It could be that your child is feeling anxious in these situations. If that’s the case, try to find a different way to help them feel strong and in control.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Let them bring a special stuffed animal to hang onto
  • Talk through the situation beforehand so they know what to expect
  • Provide snuggles and hugs
  • Practice deep breathing together

If your child is old enough to communicate well, you could try asking them about their sucking habit. They might have insight that can help you better understand where they’re coming from, and the two of you might be able to brainstorm a different solution together.

Have A Designated Spot

Another way to help your child break the habit is to restrict where they can use their pacifier or suck their thumb. For example, maybe you decide that your child can only do it while they’re in bed.

If you see them sucking anywhere else, simply redirect them to their sucking spot. Don’t get mad or annoyed; simply take their hand and walk them to the right place. You can say matter-of-factly, “Let’s go to your sucking spot.”

Since kids don’t like to miss out on what’s going on, having to leave motivates them to stop the habit. Just remember to be consistent. That way, your child quickly learns that you’re serious about them only being able to suck in a specific location.

Help Your Baby Relax In Other Ways

As you know by now, sucking on fingers, thumbs, or a pacifier is a way for your baby to relax at night. To help stop this sucking, offer your little one alternative ways to relax at night, like by giving them a bath.

Try Mustela Multi-Sensory Bubble Bath and make bath time therapeutic and fun while also protecting and hydrating your baby’s skin!

After your baby gets out of the bath and settles down for bedtime, massage their skin with our Hydra Bebe Body Lotion to keep them relaxed!

Tips For Weaning From A Pacifier

 baby in crib sucking on a pacifier instead of thumb sucking

If your little one likes sucking on a pacifier, here are a few strategies to help them wean off of it.

Introduce The Paci Fairy

If your child enjoys fairy tales and fantasy, consider using a Paci Fairy or another imaginary friend to help break the habit. When your toddler is ready, have them leave the pacifier out one evening for the fairy. That night, swap the pacifier for a special lovey your child can use instead.

Some parents even have a party on the chosen day to help celebrate their little one growing up. You can have a favorite treat and decorate a card for the Paci Fairy.

Read Goodbye Pacifier Books

Reading about other children giving up their pacifiers can be the support some kids need to say goodbye to their own.

Here are a few books you can read aloud:

  • Binky by Leslie Patricelli
  • Florrie the Paci Fairy by Anthony J. Crosbie
  • Pacifiers Are Not Forever by Elizabeth Verdick
  • Bye Bye Binky by Little Hippo Books

As you read each, talk about what the characters are going through. Find ways to relate it to your child’s personal experiences.

Use Different Pacifiers

You can find pacifier weaning systems with several different sizes of pacifiers. The idea is that by swapping out your child’s favorite pacifier with one that’s slightly smaller, it’ll be less satisfying. Then, in a few days, you go down to an even smaller one.

Another option is to just replace your child’s pacifier with one that’s a different style. This could be enough to discourage its use.

Tips For Stopping The Thumb Sucking Habit

 kid thumb sucking

If your child sucks their thumb or fingers, you won’t have quite as much control over when they stop. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to keep it up until they’re in school.

You can use these tips to encourage your child to stop sucking.

Put On Mittens

We touched on this briefly above, but it’s worth mentioning again. If your little one’s thumb is covered, it won’t provide the same cozy feeling when they put it in their mouth.

Simply put a soft cotton glove, mitten, or sock onto their hand before bed. You can cover both hands if you wish, or only the one that they tend to suck. If it falls off at night, don't worry! Just put it on again the next night and try again.

Yes, your child can take it off and suck anyway. If they do, it’s a sign that they might not be ready to wean from their thumb yet.

While you can continue encouraging them and putting barriers in place to make it harder, at the end of the day, it has to be their decision. Otherwise, you’re going to get very frustrated during this process.

Build Awareness

Often, children aren’t aware that they’re sucking. They just do it out of habit, without really thinking about it.

When you do catch them sucking, don’t make a big deal about it or get angry. Instead, stay calm and ask: “Do you know you’re sucking your thumb right now?”

Sometimes, pointing out the behavior can discourage it, especially if you pair the awareness with an alternative. For example, you can suggest your child cuddle a stuffed animal, do breathing exercises, or get a back massage instead.

Brainstorm a few ideas with your child to help them take ownership of the process.

Hang Out With Friends

Peer pressure can be an effective way to get your child to stop sucking. Schedule some playdates with kids who don’t have this habit, and let them spend time together. They may be so busy having fun that they forget to stick their thumb in their mouth.

Alternatively, sign your child up for a class or activity that’ll keep their hands busy. Toddler dance lessons, group music classes, or swimming lessons are all possibilities. Look for something your child would enjoy.

Read Books Together

If your child isn’t yet ready to stop sucking their thumb, a good book can help them warm up to the idea. Several titles address giving up thumb-sucking in a positive and encouraging way.

Here are a few to read together:

  • Thumbs Up, Brown Bear by Michael Dahl
  • Thumbpire by Sarah G. White and Stephen White
  • Dinosaurs Don’t Suck Their Thumbs by Daniel Luzzi
  • Thumb Love by Elise Primavera
  • Funny Teeth and Bunny Ears by Dr. Humairah Shah

Ask For Help

If your child is still finger-sucking despite your best efforts, it may be time to call for reinforcements. Bring it up at their next doctor or dentist appointment and see what their healthcare providers recommend.

There are specialized products available that can help, such as bitter-tasting polish for their nails or plastic thumb guards. However, these can cause additional stress and discomfort and should only be used in extreme cases at the recommendation of a doctor.

Mustela Cares

baby sucking on pacifier

Both thumb/finger-sucking and pacifier use can turn into long-term habits, but that doesn’t mean your baby should avoid them altogether! Remember that sucking either one is normal in a baby's first year, and the majority of kids give it up easily.

When the time comes to phase out finger-sucking or using a pacifier, keep the tips we’ve mentioned here in mind and take advantage of soothing and relaxing Mustela bathtime and skin care products! They can help your child calm down without their thumb or pacifier.

Happy weaning!