If you really think about it, your baby probably spends more time with his hand in his mouth during his first year of life than he does with it anywhere else. Some babies are so excited about their hands that it's almost hard to separate hand from mouth when you're trying to get them changed or bathed. It can be baffling to a parent, but the reasons why your baby keeps putting their hands in their mouth make perfect sense... to your baby.
One common assumption is that babies chew on their hands incessantly because they're teething. That assumption is often correct, but there are actually multiple reasons behind babies' fascination with their own fingers.
"Babies initially explore with their mouths," Sahira Long, M.D., the Medical Director of Children’s Health Center Anacostia in Washington, D.C., tells Romper.
"Once they discover that they have hands, they begin to explore them," Dr. Long continues.
"At some point, their teeth start to erupt, and they also come to realize how helpful those hands can be for the teething process too. Hands are the only teething tool most babies can get into their mouths without relying on someone else to supply it, and they don’t have to worry about dropping it."
Of course, your little one will have mastered the hand-to-mouth connection before those tiny teeth start popping. Getting his hands in his mouth is actually an early milestone. Your baby will start to be able to bring her hands to her mouth between 1 and 3 months old, but they don't necessarily have the "strength of skills to keep them there," explained the website Parenting Counts. "By 4 months, however, babies can put their hands in their mouths and keep them there (if they choose)."
So how can you tell if all that hand-chewing is a sign of teething?
"If there is a lot of excess drool, it probably means that your baby is starting to teethe and that they are putting pressure on their gums with their fists," reported Babies Online. Chewing on their fingers shouldn't create much of a problem for them, but you can offer a teething toy instead if you like. Paradoxically, babies often like teething toys that are harder rather than too soft; the hardness is what actually relieves pressure on the gums.
If your baby doesn't seem to be producing a puddle of drool every hour but still has his hands in his mouth, keep an eye on the time you notice him chewing on his hands the most. It might be a trend that could indicate your baby is trying to soothe himself. Not all babies suck their thumb; they might suck one or two fingers in a specific way over and over again, which can help them nod off to sleep.
Baby Gaga explained that your child sucking their thumb or fingers "is natural for babies," adding that technicians can "sometimes see babies sucking their thumbs when they are inside the mother’s womb."
You might be concerned about your baby carrying a thumb-sucking habit into early childhood because you've heard horror stories about how it can lead to teeth coming in crooked and the mouth developing unnaturally, necessitating braces later on. However, the American Dental Association's website cautioned parents of infants against worrying about this particular issue: "Thumbsucking is a natural reflex for children. Sucking on thumbs, fingers, pacifiers or other objects may make babies feel secure and happy and help them learn about their world." Most give up between 2 and 4 years old, or before permanent teeth come in, in which case your baby putting his hands in his mouth shouldn't cause any dental problems.
Finally, babies put their hands in their mouths because it's one of the exploratory senses that develops earliest. Jill Stamm, Ph.D., co-founder of the New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development and an associate clinical professor of psychology in education at Arizona State University in Tempe, told Fit Pregnancy that "The mouth and hands have the most neural real estate in the entire body," which is why babies always seem to want to get anything and everything into their mouths: They get the "most sensory input" from those areas, so getting something into their mouths tells them a lot about it quickly. It's a slimy pastime, sure, but your baby putting his hands in his mouth is most likely a totally normal and harmless habit.
This post was originally published on 6/25/2018. It was updated on 8/10/2019.