Why does my baby suck his/her finger or pacifier?

Babies and young children suck one or more fingers or a pacifier for comfort and pleasure, but also when they have nothing to do or are tired.

Many children suck their finger from intrauterine life, which proves that finger sucking is a normal reflex.

How long does finger/pacifier sucking last?

The child usually stops the habit on their own around 2 to 4 years.

Which is better: finger sucking or pacifiers?

Pacifiers are preferable to finger sucking, since their use is a habit that is theoretically easier to break.

Which pacifier is best for my baby?

There are certain things to look out for when choosing a pacifier for your baby:

  • The pacifier should be one piece and have no detachable parts, as there is a risk of choking.
  • Never tie the pacifier around your child’s neck with strings or chains. Besides the fact that it can wrap around the neck and choke your child, it teaches them that the pacifier is an “accessory” they can always have with them.
  • The teat should have a special orthodontic shape, be small and not easily torn.
  • Never dip the pacifier in honey or other sweet substances.
  • Never clean the pacifier by putting it in your mouth.
  • Do not give the pacifier to your baby every time they are in a bad mood or fussy as an easy way out instead of disciplining his/her misbehavior.

What problems can finger/pacifier sucking cause?

Prolonged, intense and constant finger sucking or pacifier use can cause problems:

  • to the jaw bones (upper jaw protrusion, narrow upper jaw),
    to the child’s teeth (protruded upper teeth),
  • the position of the tongue (positioning of the tongue between the teeth of the upper and lower jaw resulting in open bite),
  • to speech due to immature swallowing mechanism and movement of the tongue and difficulty in imitating sounds and words due to the mouth being “clogged”

How do I deal with a child who sucks their finger or uses the pacifier a lot?

You can help your child to stop the habit on their own by 4 years of age at the latest. Dr. Effie Syrrakou suggests trying one or more of the following ways:

  • Simply explain to your child why they should not suck their finger or use the pacifier, show them in a mirror how their teeth have changed and let them observe the changes (the “callus”) on their sucking finger on their own. Speak calmly and compassionately without belittling or punishing for the behavior.
  • Give hugs, cuddles and even a teddy bear to replenish the feeling of comfort that finger/pacifier suckling provides.
  • Praise your child when they are NOT nursing their finger or pacifier, instead of scolding them while they are nursing.
  • Focus on understanding and correcting the causes of your own anxiety regarding the habit, not on the habit itself. (Did you also finger/pacifier suck or do you have crooked teeth?)
  • Reward the child when they do NOT finger/pacifier suck during a difficult time, such as during your absence.
    Use a journal to record your child’s efforts. Each day that he/she does not finger/pacifier suck, put a sticker on their journal. When they collect enough stickers, they can receive a gift of their choice.
  • Help your child to gradually reduce the number of hours they do not suck on their finger or pacifier, leaving the evening for last as that is when the habit is most pronounced in most children.
  • Make a deal with your child to gift their pacifier to the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, etc. in exchange for something they would like.
    Ask your child’s teacher, grandmother, nanny to behave accordingly.
  • Keep only one pacifier. Throw away the rest.
  • Poke a hole in the teat of the pacifier so that it is not functional.

Read relevant books: Bye-Bye Binky: Big Kid Power (by Maria van Lieshout), Pacifiers Are Not Forever (by  Elizabeth Verdick and Marieka Heinlen), The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit (by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain), Berenstain Baby Bears Pacifier Days (by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain), Thumbs Up, Brown Bear (by Michael Dahl)

Several pediatricians, dentists and teachers advise parents to use a bitter solution on the child’s sucking finger or to tape it to stop the habit. Dr. Effie Syrrakou disagrees with such interventions. She believes that positive reinforcement in the above-mentioned ways is much more effective.

If these tips do not help, your pediatric dentist can explain to your children why they should not suck their finger, encourage them to stop or even intervene orthodontically (after the age of 4-5 years) by making a special orthodontic appliance.