Q. Our 3-week-old loves to suck, and while some friends and family push the pacifier, others advocate thumb sucking. Whom should we listen to?
A. As you can see, the pacifier-versus-thumb camps are firmly entrenched, with each side feeling sure that its choice is superior. (Those in the non-sucking camp feel even more superior, but all they are is lucky.) In reality, there isn’t all that much difference between a pacifier and a thumb. Both provide satisfying “nonnutritive sucking,” as the experts call it. Both soothe and relax a baby and help him go to sleep. Both are marginally to very unhygienic, depending on how much sterilizing or finger washing you do. Both may or may not damage tooth alignment, depending on which dentist you speak to. Each detracts a bit from a baby’s natural good looks. And, most important, each one is a tough habit to break.
The main differences between the two: The pacifier can get lost, while the thumb cannot; and the pacifier can be permanently gotten rid of when it’s time to kick the habit.
This last difference convinced my husband and me to offer our two former sucking aficionados a pacifier instead of a thumb. It’s not that quitting the pacifier is any easier. You take away the passy or forbid the thumb, and he’s going to suffer for a while. But a 2-year-old can’t go to Wal-Mart and pick up a new pacifier the way he can simply stick his thumb back in his mouth. If you’re still on the fence, what may tilt the balance is the ickiness factor: Whichever seems less icky to you is the one you should choose.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a lifetime decision — everyone outgrows the sucking habit eventually. Besides, babies (people) are unpredictable; yours could surprise you by rejecting your choice or not needing either. As a friend used to say, babies rule.
Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING magazine and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.