Its truly amazing. The moment a baby is born their suckling reflex is activate. A nipple, soother, thumb or even their mother’s finger on the roof of their mouth will cause the baby to begin suckling. It is the most important innate reflex that a newborn baby posses. Not only does it provide nourishment to allow the baby to grow and thrive, but it also plays a large part in allowing the newborn to calm and settle themselves.
The question to whether sucking their thumb or using a soother is an age old debate that really has no answer. There are pros and cons to both but the end result is always the same. If it become a prolonged habit, its hard to stop.
Many babies begin sucking their thumb in utero and continue this habit once outside the womb. The rhythmic sucking motion on ones thumb, originally starts out as a preparation for nursing, but over time can be associated with self-soothing and pleasurable oral sensations. There are many advantages to sucking ones thumb over a soother. A thumb is a permanent part of the baby’s body making it easily accessible and under the babies control when the suckling need arises. However, being a permanent part of the child’s body means that you can not take it away when the time to stop sucking arises. A child will normally stop sucking their thumb in the toddler years. Sometimes, the thumb sucking behavior continues at night or in periods of stress for many years beyond that. It is highly recommended to break the habit around age 5 when their permanent teeth begin erupting. After that age, prevent severe dental problems can arise.
I was a thumb sucker. For many years, this was my ‘dirty’ little secret. I sucked my thumb for comfort, when I was tense, when I was bored or tired. Unfortunately, my habit did not end in the toddler years. I am ashamed to admit it, but continued until I was 13. I tried everything to STOP sucking my thumb. I tried disgusting flavoured nail polish, wrapping my thumb in bandages and even being punished (no TV, etc) if I was caught doing it. I made the conscious effort to stop, yet there were many times I would yelled at by my parents for sucking my thumb without even being aware that my thumb was in my mouth!
Pacifier, soother, suzie, binky or dummy are some of the names used to describe a rubber, silicone or plastic object that a given to a newborn to satisfy the suckling reflex. Whether given to a colic baby who can’t figure out to soothe them self or a baby that displays the thumb sucking behavior, there are many different reason why a parent chooses to give their child a soother. The soother provides the same comfort, security and oral pleasure that sucking ones thumb does, but unlike a thumb, a soother can easily be damaged (cutting the tip off), lost, or taken away from the child in an attempt to break the habit. The downside is soother use has been linked to breast feeding confusion, speech delays and possibly SIDS.
Two out of three of my children are soother suckers (the middle one chose nothing!). Although it has provided many nights of sleep and the ability to easily sooth a fussy baby in public, I found them very troublesome and annoying. They drop on the floor, they get dirty, you have to replace them often, they are sometimes tied to your child’s clothing with a string that could be potentially dangerous, and many times a child needs some way to locate the soother in the middle of the night. DS7 was a soother sucker until age 3. After age 1, it was only allowed at nap time or night time, but occasionally he would sneak up to his bed and have a “sucking breaking” where he would suck hard on a soother for 2 minutes and be good for the day. I dreaded the thought of taking his soother away! One night, I asked if he wanted to give it up and he said yes. I took the soother away and it was never asked for again! With DD2, I came across an amazing blanket that provide an attachment for the soother. In the middle of the night when she searches for her soother, I see her literally reach for the blanket and drag her fingers around the entire perimeter of her blanket until she locates the soother. Currently, the soother is still a night time/nap time friend, whom we are hoping to say good bye to soon! Unlike DS7, I don’t think it will be as easy!
The soother vs thumb debate, in my mind, truly doesn’t have a clear answer to which is better. I’ve lived one side and witnessed my children live the other. Both have advantages and disadvantages, both can be come prolonged habits that can stretch far past the toddler years, and in my opinion, are very personal choices. I think the most important lesson to learn is that babies need to find ways to self sooth for their sake (and their mothers!) and whether it be naturally, by thumb or by artificial means it is a skill they need to learn.