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Thumb Sucking or a Pacifier?

Is One Better Than the Other?

When expecting parents see an ultrasound of their child, it brings them delight and awe. When they see that tiny infant begin to suck its thumb while still in the womb, there’s simply no equal to the feeling. Even after the child is born, seeing them sucking their thumb in a crib or stroller is a cherished image. Another precious image is seeing the infant sucking away at a pacifier as they sleep. But many parents soon ask us at the Yuba City Dentistry Group: is thumb sucking better than a pacifier? Once their teeth start coming in, do we need to wean them away from the practice? Since this is a common concern, let’s discuss pacifiers and thumb sucking in relation to dental health.

The Pacifier or the Thumb?

Both thumb sucking and using a pacifier have their place, and both have their pros and cons. For instance, thumbs are readily available and cannot be lost or dropped on the ground, and you don’t have to go searching for them in the dark as the child sleeps. On the other hand, a study back in 2005 indicated a possible link between pacifier use and a drop in vulnerability to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Both thumbs and pacifiers are susceptible to introducing germs and bacteria to the infant if not regularly cleaned. Naturally, pacifiers are a little easier to keep track of than a thumb.

Another thing to consider is that many children develop a slight preference on their own as their personality develops. Some prefer the thumb while others prefer the pacifier. There are no studies to show personality directions indicated by such a choice, it’s simply up to the child’s preference. Although the parents might be able to influence this preference by removing the pacifier as an option, it does not affect whether the thumb is a better option or not – all it does is remove the choice from the developing child.

The Benefits of Thumb Sucking and Pacifiers

When a child sucks on a thumb or a pacifier, it reinforces a natural reflex. It helps them feel secure, happy, and calm as they learn more about their new “external” environment. A security blanket performs a similar function for many children later in life. From a dental point of view, both thumb sucking and using a pacifier assist in developing jaw muscles properly as well as the formation of the mouth, teeth, and jaws. Challenges appear when the practice continues for a prolonged period. Most children grow out of the practice between ages two and four. After that age there may be issues with teeth alignment and jaw growth. Too much of a “good thing” becomes harmful.

Stopping Thumb Sucking and Removing the Pacifier

Some children might need help or encouragement to stop sucking their thumb or using a pacifier. When it comes to pacifiers, it’s often easier to discourage the habit by simply no longer supplying the pacifier. (A huge advantage over the thumb!) Unfortunately, that may only encourage the child to switch over to sucking their thumb. Using positive reinforcement and encouragement to help stop thumb sucking goes a long way. Negative reinforcement is dangerous, and using pressure often affects their developing personality in negative ways. Likewise, peer pressure from other children might result in their giving up the practice, but too much peer pressure is the same as negative reinforcement.

In any case, go on the journey with your child. Be there for them. Take note of how they are handling the situation and watch how they interact with other children. Remember that positive reinforcement goes a long way. Praise and reward your child appropriately as they stop the practice. And don’t forget that the Yuba City Dentistry Group is on your side. We’ll also encourage your child to stop sucking their thumb or pacifier when you determine the time is right. Since your child should have their first dental visit within six months of their first tooth emerging, we will know them well by the time they reach four years of age.

Like many practices while growing up, thumb sucking or using a pacifier has its place. Prolonged use, however, may become dentally harmful. To discuss the issue further or gain more information about thumb sucking or using a pacifier, please ask at your child’s next dental exam.

Aug 11, 2022 | Oral Health


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