I have heard countless stories similar to the above statement from families in need of sleep help. The question of whether or not to use a pacifier continues to be a hot parenting topic. Instead of talking about whether or not to use a pacifier, today we are focusing on when and how to stop using one.
Throughout my three years of experience as a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant, I have noticed a growing pattern/trend on the pacifier front. 100% of the families I have worked with who have taken the pacifier away when their child was between 18-24 months have created intense, long lasting sleep issues.
When I started noticing this trend I began wondering what it was about this specific sleep crutch that causes more sleep disruptions for this age group than any other common crutch. I knew there had to be a reason behind what I was seeing and the pattern had become significant enough that I began recommending that families keep the pacifier until their child was closer to age 3.
To further my understanding of this topic I sought out the insight of an esteemed colleague; Child Behavior Specialist and counselor, Sharyn Timerman.
In your experience Sharyn, why do children seem to have such a tough time when their parents take the pacifier away between the ages of 18-24 months?
According to studies from researchers and what we have learned about Early Childhood Development, babies from about 5 months of age slowly begin the path to developing a sense of self (that is apart from the mother). There is a natural venture for independence that increases as they grow and yet at the very same time an incredible dependence upon parent and/or caregiver. It is between the ages of 15-22 months, that toddlers will attempt greater strides towards independence. It is at this stage that they are “stuck” in between 2 opposing needs; the need for autonomy (very typical the closer they get to 24 months) and the need to cling. Even a toddler who appears well adjusted or loves to venture out, will need some measure of reassurance and most of all consistency in his or her life.
If a child during these ages has learned to self soothe with the pacifier, it has become an essential part of their life. As they begin to take “chances”, to test their world, the pacifier is one of the elements they have been able to count on. Imagine the child trusting their natural instincts to grow in their psychosocial development and one of their mainstays is snatched away suddenly. What does this tell them about the world? The pacifier therefore provides a comforting reassurance at a time when they are programmed to take risks, move out into the world and the need for comfort and consistency increases.
How is a pacifier different than another sleep crutch like rocking to sleep or using a bottle to get a child to sleep?
First , I would always recommend that at the 18 month stage or at any age once teeth are present, that bottles are not used to get a child to sleep because milk resting on the teeth will cause decay.
The pacifier vs. rocking : In the infant/toddler stage (0-3 years) it is interesting to learn about the right and left sides of the brain and the connections we make emotionally. We want to teach children as early as possible about their emotions and although there are numerous ways to do that which we cannot detail here, let us take a moment then to look at the “independence” of the pacifier. Rocking a child is not a bad thing if it doesn’t interfere with sleep skills and the same thoughts can be applied to the pacifier. The difference is though that the pacifier is an independent tool that allows a child to soothe, to prepare their body for sleep and as well self-regulate emotions. Of course the presence of a caring adult and a warm body is always what humans crave but at the same time as that natural strive for independence increases, a familiar tool like the pacifier builds on a child’s ability to be in control and regulate. When we take that control away, especially when it is sudden and without any sort of system, then we are interfering with the very tasks the brain is trying to perform.
Is there anything parents can do once they have taken the pacifier away and the result is poor sleep and an unhappy toddler? Should they try to give the pacifier back?
Each case differs. It depends how long the pacifier has been gone. If it is several weeks, then adjust yourself and your child’s with solid sleep training methods. If you have taken it away less than a week ago and you have witnessed your child go from rock star sleeper to a complete mess, and not doing well during the day, then return the pacifier with instructions for your child saying “let me know when your body is ready to give away your pacifier.” Note- you may still have some sleep issues if you are past 3 days of night trouble. If you feel that there is no way you can return the pacifier, then again, your emphasis needs to be on really consistent sleep training. Your child needs to know that you know what you are doing, trust is essential.
Many dentists and pediatricians give differing recommendations as far as what age is the best age to put the pacifier aside, what’s your opinion on those who say to lose it before age 2 to prevent dental issues?
Losing it at 4-5 months of age can sometimes prove successful, however it is my belief that when a child does soothe easily because of a pacifier, it is because there is a greater oral need than the child who does not have one. If you read some of the research from American Academy of Pediatrics, you may find many benefits of pacifiers such as decrease of cases of SIDS.
What is the ideal age for getting rid of the pacifier?
The ideal age is when the child and parent partner together to move onto the next step of growth. How wonderful for a child when they are given the opportunity to work at self-discipline, and find a variety of ways to calm down or self-soothe. Let’s also keep in mind that immediate gratification is a natural part of a toddler’s stage of life and so parents do not need to stress if their child needs time to develop in this area. That’s why partnering with them and allowing them the authority over when to lose the paci is so powerful.
What steps should parents take and how should they handle it when the time comes?
Validation: I know this is hard, you loved your pacifier. Now we are going to remember it and how lovely it was.
When you tell a child what they cannot do, tell them what they can: Your pacifier is not here, not for you to suck on anymore but when you feel like you want to, you can stretch your arms, wiggle your toes, you can even squeeze your lips together.
Parents can also offer frozen teething rings as a transition, anything that says to a child “I support you and I’m here to help you through”.
Understand that this can be difficult for your child, see it through their eyes and offer them support. No lies like the pacifier fairy has them or the kids in another country need them…be a truth teller because the truth is a wonderful story about themselves and that is “I trust you, I know you are strong enough to do this, and we are in it as a family.”