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Posted on Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 5 a.m.

Don't let baby's pacifier become all-purpose crutch

By Ask Dr. K


My new baby wants her pacifier all the time. The moment I take it away, she sticks her thumb in her mouth. How can I break her of these habits?


In general, thumb- and finger-sucking in an infant is not something to worry about. You have little control over it, anyway.

Why do babies suck their fingers and thumbs? Who knows? The babies can't tell you. One theory is that nursing is comforting to babies: It provides food to take away hunger and offers contact with mom. When something makes a baby uneasy, even if the baby is not hungry, he or she seeks reassurance and comfort from sucking on something.

Thumb-sucking does help some babies sleep. To put some myths to rest, thumb-sucking won't delay your child's language development. And it won't cause any harm to her mouth or teeth if it is stopped by age 4 or 5.

If your infant sucks her thumb, first make sure she is getting enough to eat. If she wants to nurse a little longer or wants a little more formula, let her eat. Once you've established that the sucking isn't about food, allow her the comfort of her fingers or thumb.

I'm not a pediatrician, but from conversations with my pediatric colleagues here at Harvard, I view pacifiers a little differently. Unlike thumb- or finger-sucking, which is generally your baby's choice, introducing a pacifier is your choice. Once you've made that choice and given the object to your baby, it can be hard to take it away later.

Pacifiers do have some advantages: They satisfy the sucking need, offer comfort and may help some babies sleep. A pacifier may be most useful in infants 2 to 4 months old, when the need to suck seems to be strongest.

Your baby might lose interest after this time frame -- unless the pacifier has become a sleeping aid. If you put your baby to bed with one, she might wake up repeatedly when she loses it during the night.

Make sure you don't let the pacifier become a crutch. Before you put the pacifier into your baby's mouth, ask yourself if it is really sucking that your baby wants. If your baby just needs comforting, there are other things you can do. Try talking or singing to your baby, picking her up and swaying from side to side. She may just need to know you are there and that you will protect her.

Because your baby already has an alternative to the pacifier -- her thumb -- my advice would be to gradually take away the pacifier. I emphasize "gradually": Sudden changes can be very upsetting.

Thumb-sucking may become problematic if it persists beyond age 4 or 5. But by that time, it will more than likely be a long-forgotten habit.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information:

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