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Sucking - A Baby's Favorite Soothing

April 26, 2017

Sucking - A Baby's Favorite Soothing

Whether suckling at mom’s breast or sucking down a bottle, babies get their nutrients from sucking. Fortunately, babies are born with the ability to suck and swallow; it’s an inborn reflex that is vital to a baby’s survival. Thankfully, they can do it from day one, because can you imagine trying to teach a baby how to suck? How would you even begin to describe to this tiny creature the multiple muscles and steps in properly sucking and swallowing milk?

Turning on the Calming Response

Sucking not only satisfies a baby’s hunger but it can also turn on their calming response. Studies have shown “non-nutritive sucking” (i.e., not sucking to eat) can lessen stress by decreasing blood pressure and heart rate while also stimulating the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals into the brain. Sucking can helping premature babies grow faster and also decrease the risk of SIDS! All in all, sucking is a highly sophisticated tool babies use for self-calming and self-preservation.

Sure, some babies need a few days or weeks to really get proficient at sucking, swallowing, and breathing while they eat. If you’re a mom who’s had trouble breastfeeding, you know this all too wellbabies may know how to suck but they aren’t always great at it! Fortunately, they do learn without much input; it just takes patience and practice and they’ll ultimately be able to do it in their sleepliterally and metaphorically!

Even in the womb, babies know how to suck and can sometimes be seen on ultrasound with their hands up by their mouths at the 28 week mark! But once baby is born, they are no longer snuggly packed into the womb with their hands conveniently in front of their mouth. Instead, even though baby may want to be sucking on her hands, just trying to move them up into the right position causes them to go flailing, rarely making their mark and sometimes even frightening themselves with a bump on the head!

This is why swaddling with arms down to keep them snug and safe from their own flailing arms is a very useful tool to keep baby calm. But with arms pinned to their sides, how else can babies enjoy the sucking they so desperately wants? A pacifier is what we all think of, but it’s not the only way to give babies exactly what they want!

Avoiding Nipple Confusion

Many breastfeeding moms are afraid to use a pacifier because of the dreaded “nipple confusion,” which is difficulty breastfeeding after introduction of a rubber nipple, either in pacifier or baby bottle form. In many ways, it makes sense that babies might get confused between the two types of nipples. One is a firmer, synthetic material, designed with a simple hole for milk to exit through. The other is softer with multiple ducts where milk comes out of; mom’s breast, although natural, requires a much more coordinated sucking effort than feeding from a bottle or sucking on pacifier.

Hold a bottle upside down and eventually some milk will leak out. Aside from mom’s initial “let down” where breast milk wets her nipple (and sometimes her bra/shirt), milk only flows from a breast when massaged and sucked by baby’s feeding. So in some cases, a baby gets confused between the two and prefers the easier, synthetic nipple! This may lead to baby weaning earlier than mom or pediatrician may desire.

Fortunately, as long as you wait just a few weeks for breastfeeding to become established, most babies can switch between a synthetic nipple and mom’s breast without a problem. In these cases, feel free to start using a pacifier as early and often as your baby wants some non-nutritive sucking! If, however, after introducing a pacifier or bottle nipple, baby has difficulty latching, staying latched, or feeding efficiently during their next breastfeeding session, the pacifier may be the problem and may need to be avoided.

Sucking - A Baby's Favorite Soothing | Tranquilo Mat

An Alternative to a Pacifier

In the case where baby can’t use a pacifier or can’t quite seem to use it effectively, a clean finger may work as a great alternative! In many cases, a finger is softer and fleshier than a pacifier so it’s easier for baby to use. Letting baby suck on your finger is actually a really enlightening experience for most people as it helps them to feel how coordinated baby’s sucking efforts are and just how strong their suck can be! To use this technique, follow these simple steps:

  1. Clean and wash your hands properly with hand hygiene techniques. Ensure the nails aren’t too sharp or too long.
  2. Be sure to select a finger that’s approximately the same size as mom’s nipple which will differ based on mom’s anatomy and the person whose finger is being usedfor example, dad might need to use his pinky finger while mom or grandma might be able to use a pointer finger.
  3. Place the finger into baby’s mouth with the finger pad towards the top of the mouth and the finger nail by baby’s tongue.
  4. Once the finger is in babies mouth, you want to tickle the soft part palate in the back of baby's mouth. This part is pretty far back on the roof of the mouth but you can feel it in your own mouth with your finger or tongue first. By tickling this soft palate, you automatically stimulate baby’s suck reflex and you’ll then notice baby starting to suck on your finger!
  5. Sit back and watch baby calm down and become soothed!

Note that if baby sucks on their pacifier or your finger just for a few minute before starting to cry again, chances are baby is hungry! It’s almost like baby is protesting“Wait a minute, that’s not milk!” In this case, a feeding is obviously in order.

This is different than a baby who's sucking effects diminish as they fall asleep and the finger/pacifier falls out of their mouth. When this happens, it is a more gradual realization that they want to suck but don’t have the pacifier anymore which wakes them up and they start crying all over again. To help babies with this problem, you can train them to keep sucking even as they sleep by slightly tugging the pacifier or finger out of their mouths while also tickling the top of their mouth. This will encourage them to suck the pacifier back into their mouth and begin sucking anew. All of this helps them learn how to not lose their pacifier when they do fall asleep.

Sucking - A Baby's Favorite Soothing | Tranquilo Mat

Tips for Soothing

Just a few more tips can ensure you're giving baby the best soothing possible:

  • Make sure to never dip a pacifier into a sweet syrup to encourage them to suck. Honey and maple syrup can put your baby at risk for botulism!
  • Wash the pacifier with soap and hot water to keep in clean. You don’t need to be obsessive about cleaning because babies do need to come into contact with some germs as they grow and build their immune systems, but it does still need to be cleaned!
  • Use a proper pacifier clip and never a string or ribbon to prevent the pacifier from hitting the ground. Strings and ribbons can pose a choking hazard and also get wrapped around tiny fingers and toes, cutting off circulation!
  • Once baby reaches 4-5 months old, it’s time to get rid of the pacifier. At this point, baby is old enough to be able to bring their own hands or other objects to their mouth to suck on. They have also grown and learned other self-soothing techniques. Trying to get rid of a pacifier after 6 months is much more difficult as by that point baby will have developed a close emotional bond with their “paci” and just like a favorite teddy bear or security blanket, may not want to give it up!

So remember, sucking is a natural soothing technique that can be used anytime and anywhere with any baby! Combine it with the other soothing S’s and you’ll have a baby who is calm and happy!

Check out Melissa's Facebook Live video on sucking:

So, tell us: did you use a pacifier to help calm baby? Or was your baby a bigger fan of sucking on mom or dad’s finger?

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