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Pacifiers and Finger Sucking

Question of the Week

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Created: October 09, 2004

Q. My 3 month old is constantly sucking at her fists and fingers. Does this mean she is not eating enough? She sleeps through the night (12 hours) and eats a 6-oz bottle every 2-3 hours during the day. Thanks for your feedback. Anne, Watertown, MA

A. Probably not. If she was really hungry, you wouldn't expect her to be satisfied with sucking on her fists or fingers. The real test is how well she is gaining weight though. Has she been gaining weight well since her two week and two month visit with her Pediatrician?

Also, does she have frequent wet diapers? Not having frequent wet diapers would be a sign of dehydration and that she may not be eating enough.

It is possible that an infant might not recognize hunger signs and so might sleep through the night and not fuss to be fed, even though she was really being underfed and not gaining weight very well. Since your baby is drinking 6 ounces every 2-3 hours throughout the day, that should be more than enough to keep her growing well though.

How Much Formula Is Enough?

The easy answer is enough to keep your baby healthy and growing well. On average, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that your baby should be eating 'about 4 or 5 ounces during the second month, to 5 or 6 ounces by four months' at each feeding and that an infant's 'daily intake should reach about 30 ounces by four months.'

The AAP also suggests that a 'baby should take in about 2 1/2 ounces of formula a day for every pound of body weight.' So if you have an average 3 month old infant girl who is 12 pounds, then that would equal about 30 ounces of formula a day.

Non-Nutritive Sucking

So if she isn't hungry, then why would she be sucking on her fists and fingers?

It has long been known that sucking has a purpose other than for nutrition for most infants. It can also help infants self-soothe or comfort themselves, whether they suck on a pacifier or their fingers.

Not all infants are able to calm themselves in this manner, so in some ways you're lucky.

And although sucking on a pacifier or on an infant's fingers is often thought of as being something bad, if you begin to limit them once an infant begins to lose the need for non-nutritive sucking at about 6-9 months, it often doesn't become a long-term bad habit.

To avoid letting non-nutritive sucking become a problem, you should:

  • avoid a pacifier in the early weeks of breastfeeding
  • don't use your baby's ability to comfort herself as a substitute for holding and nurturing your baby
  • begin to limit it once your infant gets older and has less of a need to use it to calm herself
One big mistake that parents make with pacifiers is to use the ones that you can attach to a child's clothing and then place it in their mouth every time they cry. If you do this, there is a good chance that your child will have a long-term pacifier habit, since the pacifier is always available.

Otherwise it gets much easier to make it less available when your infant gets older, and distract your child into looking for something else to get attached to that will not have any of the negative effects on his teeth or speech, like a toy, stuffed animal, or blanket.

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