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Dear Magda

Thumb or Pacifier

Dear Magda, 

At our last Bradley Childbirth Education class, we discussed the benefits of the pacifier vs. thumb-sucking. Now my baby is three weeks old and I am very confused. Virginia seems to be searching with her mouth for her fist. At times she succeeds and they unite. I decided to give her the pacifier so she would not become a thumb-sucker, but I find it difficult to disrupt her search. It looks so purposeful. She cries when I interfere, but sucks vigorously when I put the pacifier in her mouth. Then it falls out, she cries, and I have to put it back again. How long will this go on?

 Dear Parent, 

You touched on my favorite topic: thumb vs. pacifier. We know from literature as well as from observing infants that they have a strong need for sucking from birth on. It is often referred to as the sucking instinct or reflex. Sucking also stops crying. As a result, many crying children are given the breast or the bottle, not because they need food, but to end their crying. Thrusting the breast, the bottle, a pacifier, or a teether into a crying infant’s mouth is one of the most often used calming devices. It is fast, handy and it works. Sucking is an instinctual need and adults have an instinctual rather than objective reaction to it. When a mother says, “It makes me sick to see my five-year-old put his thumb in his mouth,” or “How disgusting this two-year-old looks sucking on his blanket,” it is obvious that deeper emotional layers in the parent are touched.

Throughout history, thumb-sucking has aroused strong feelings. It was called a bad habit and was blamed for producing protruding teeth and a disobedient, withdrawn, or insatiable child. Society was up in arms about oral gratification. Parents were advised to restrain the baby physically by tying its arms, pulling sleeves over its hands, using aluminum mittens or elbow splints, or putting something bitter-tasting on the thumbs. Gentler interferences have included pulling out the thumb, giving a substitute, and distracting, bribing, or showing dislike. Any of these reactions give a child at a very early, impressionable age, the message that something that feels so good, comforting, natural, and easy is bad. It’s like planting seeds of doubt and insecurity about one’s own goodness or the goodness of the outside world.

 Some infants are born with their thumbs in their mouths or even have been known to suck in the womb. The thumb belongs to the infant. She has to discover it and learn how to use it as part other own body. It is always available. It doesn’t fall on the floor and get dirty or get lost when needed. The infant can put it in her mouth and pull it out according to her own needs and desires. In the process, she learns how to soothe herself and how to become self-reliant. When there is no misgiving about it, she will use it when and for as long as she really needs it. The development of the infant’s independence is the very reason some parents frown on thumb-sucking.

 I do not know when the pacifier was invented, but it is a very old device. It certainly made sense in times when infants were swaddled, rocked, and pacified. Common belief was that infants should be kept completely passive and helpless. They were prevented from having any activity and, indeed, became passive and quiet. In our day pacifiers are given mainly for the following reasons: to stop crying, to meet the need for sucking, to put an infant to sleep, to soothe colic, and to prevent thumb-sucking.

 The pacifier is a plug. It does stop a child from crying, but the question is, does an infant have a right to cry? Should an infant be allowed to express her feelings and communicate them? By plugging her mouth, the message given is, “Don’t do what comes naturally. Do what pleases me, your parent. I am in control of how you should feel and how you should show your feelings.” When anything is put into a young infant’s mouth she starts sucking. However, is her real need for sucking, when and for how long, met, or is the pacifier given when the parent interprets the infant’s need for it? When the pacifier is used to put an infant to sleep, it is often when the adult decides that the infant should sleep. In addition, there is no proof whatsoever that sucking the pacifier helps relieve colic better than sucking the thumb. Many parents prefer the pacifier to thumb-sucking. Why this fierce debate? What are the real or imagined dangers of thumb-sucking? Parents complain about being awakened many times per night because the pacifier fell out of the baby’s mouth. Yet they prefer this situation to one where the infant is in control. Some worry that the child will be sucking his or her thumb in kindergarten. Others claim they can always throw out the pacifier when the child becomes too old for it. Again, the parent is in control. The issue is not a simple preference of pacifier vs. thumb. The real issue is, who is in control? 

Copyright © 2022 Magda Gerber Legacy 

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Black and white ink drawing of an infant laying supine and reaching towards an adult hand which is reaching back to the infant

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