Babies have been seen to suck on their fingers on ultrasound before they’re even born! Putting their hands in their mouth is a natural thing that babies do, especially in the first 6 to 12 months of life. Should you let baby put their hands in their mouth? Yes, absolutely! There are actually many benefits to this.
Reasons Babies Put Their Hands in Their Mouth
Babies put their hands in their mouth for all sorts of reasons. Here are some of the common reasons.
Babies put their hands in their mouth when they’re hungry and they’re looking for something to suck. This is one of the early signs baby is ready to eat and it’s best to feed them when you see this behavior rather than waiting until they’re crying and more disorganized.
They’re Trying to Self-Soothe
Although babies really are dependent on their caregivers for regulation, they do make attempts to soothe themself. Sucking is very regulating for babies and if they don’t have a breast, bottle, or pacifier close by, their hands are the next best thing! You may see them attempt to self-soothe by sucking on their hands when tired, uncomfortable, or overstimulated.
When babies feel the new sensation of a tooth coming through, they can’t help but try to learn more about what’s going on in their mouth. They may also realize that it feels good on itchy or sore gums to bite down on something and their fingers are an easy option.
Babies are natural explorers, but young babies can’t yet crawl over to something interesting to check it out. Their hands are always right there with them and such a fun thing to play with! Babies’ mouths are highly sensitive and exploring with their mouth is a great way to learn about their body and environment.
Young babies also don’t yet have the fine motor dexterity to explore objects with their fingers. Until they are about 5 to 6 months of age and starting to bang toys on a table and shake them to make noise, the most exciting thing they can do with objects is to put them in their mouth. Before they’re able to reach and grasp toys, their hands are their only option.
Benefits of Letting Baby Put Their Hands in Their Mouth
So yes, you should let baby put their hands in their mouth! But why? In addition to the baby-led reasons they put their hand in their mouth (like because it’s fun!), there are other benefits as well.
Oral Motor Skill Development
When babies bring their hands to mouth, many reflexes are activated including:
- Rooting Reflex-Turning toward a stimulus and opening mouth
- Sucking Reflex-Sucking occurs when a stimulus is applied to the tongue, such as a finger or nipple
- Lateral Tongue Reflex-Tongue moves to the side to follow a stimulus
- Gag Reflex-A protective reflex that prevents swallowing items too large
Practicing lateral tongue movements before starting to eat solids will help baby once they do begin to eat. Frequent stimulation that goes further back in their mouth (like when they suck on their fingers), helps to integrate the gag reflex.
If baby is not given adequate sensory stimulation and opportunities for reflex integration for their mouth, they’re more at risk to be hypersensitive and to have a hyperactive gag. This can lead to picky eating, because who wants to eat if it doesn’t feel good? For more tips on Preventing Picky Eating, we have another article for you.
Experiencing various forms of touch is important for the developing body. Because the mouth is so sensitive, allowing babies to feel different types of touch in and around the mouth is super important.
A typical healthy diet includes a variety of flavors and textures. In order to help kids be open to a lot of variety of foods, they need to be comfortable with a variety of sensory stimulation. Letting them suck on their fingers is one of the best things you can do early on to facilitate interest in sensory exploration with the mouth.
Strengthening Their Immune System
Babies hands will naturally pick up germs from their environment and other people and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it’s a good idea to keep them away from sick people and keep your home fairly clean, don’t feel like your home has to be perfect. It’s okay for babies to be exposed to some germs. A lack of exposure to environmental antigens actually increases a child’s risk for asthma, allergies, and an overreactive immune system later in life.
The gastrointestinal and immune systems are strengthened by babies putting their hands in their mouth.
Is It Okay to Put Mittens on Babies?
I strongly discourage using mittens on babies. I know that many parents are worried about baby scratching their face. I get it, you don’t want baby to hurt themselves and to have scratch marks all over their face.
But wearing mittens limits baby being able to put their hands in their mouth which prevents all of the previously described benefits. It also encourages baby’s hands to remain fisted as it limits finger extension and can cause delays with fine motor skills. I highly recommend focusing on doing your best to keep baby’s nails short rather than using mittens.
But yes, cutting a baby’s nails is often very scary for parents and baby nails tend to be super sharp. Pair that with a lack of motor coordination and yes, babies will sometimes scratch themselves.
Of course, trying to avoid this is understandable. But really, what’s the worst thing that will happen? I think in most cases, the consequences of using baby mittens too much outweighs the chance of baby scratching their face.
That said, if you’re scared to cut baby’s nails, try an electric baby nail file like this one. So many of the parents I work with love them and it makes it easier to safely cut baby’s nails.
The Fridababy nail clippers are another great option. The curved overlapping blades allow you to trim baby’s nails without the risk of cutting their finger. Even with a wiggly infant, I can attest that these clippers work super well!
So let baby put their hands in their mouth! And when they’re able to hold toys, let them put those in their mouth too. It’s natural, healthy, and fun!
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