A lot of parents who use soothers feel a twinge of guilt the first time they stick a pacifier in their baby’s mouth. Even when I ask my families if a soother is in play with their toddler’s sleep, there's a good chance that I hear a guilty tone in their voice when they admit that their child still uses a pacifier. However, dealing with a screaming infant in the grocery line or on a long car trip will make most parents try just about anything they can think of to calm the child down – and as a mom and sleep coach, I’m right there with you, so there's no judgement happening over here!
The truth is, giving your little one a pacifier often works. Babies are born with the instinct and drive to suckle. They are limited in their ability to express what they want and have no easy, clear way to let you know if they’re hungry, thirsty or in pain. Sucking is a soothing reflex and brings them comfort, which is why a baby will suck on just about anything you put in its mouth, whether it’s a bottle, breast, finger or toy.
But at a certain age, kids are more than capable of learning their own way to self-soothe, and pacifier dependence can cause long-term problems. Many experts agree that using a soother until about age one is okay. Anything past age two and there are some worrying issues and potential long-term effects.
Here are four areas that persistent soother use can have a negative impact on your child and their development:
Pacifiers interfere with the consolidation of nighttime sleep. If your toddler uses one to fall asleep, they will most likely wake in the night and then not be able to get back to sleep until they can find it and put it back in their mouth. Even if the child isn’t looking to you for help finding the soother, there are still times when it’s causing a full wake-up for retrieval and a delay in getting back to sleep as the child has to re-orient themselves. While brief wake-ups are common in the night after the sleep cycle is completed, when a child is soother dependent it often leads to fragmented sleep, which can make for a tired and cranky toddler the next day.
Pediatric dentists recommend eliminating soother use completely by age four and limiting it by age two. Once your child loses his baby teeth, his adult teeth can be permanently affected by sucking on a soother when they break through the gum tissue. Overbites and crossbites can occur, which lead to problems with chewing, speech and appearance. Hello braces!
Ear Infections/Otitis Media
Studies have linked pacifier use as a possible cause for recurring ear infections. In fact, children who use soothers regularly are up to three times more likely to develop ear infections, due to the speculation that persistent sucking of the pacifiers can impact the movement of air within the inner ear, which can lead to chronic otitis media and the possibility of having to enlist the help of ear tubes to drain the fluid produced as a result of the ear infections.
Around twelve months of age, kids begin to enter into their speech development phase. This means they will start trying out sounds and words and will often babble to themselves and others while they learn this new skill. If they frequently have a soother in their mouths, the opportunity to practice talking and making speech sounds can be inhibited.
Also, constant soother use can make it harder for a child’s tongue and lip muscles to develop normally, according to Patricia Hamaguchi, a speech-language pathologist and author of Childhood, Speech, Language, and Listening Problems: What Every Parent Should Know.
How Do I help My Child Break the Binky Habit?
Some kids will start to phase it out themselves as they develop other coping skills around the age of two, which makes the transition quite nice and easy. But some babies won’t give it up without a fight!
One common way is to go cold-turkey – gather up all of the binkys and help them find their way out of your house. Then buckle down for a tough day or two while your child adjusts to not having a nuk in their mouth.
One other popular option is to cut a hole in the tip/nub of the pacifier and tell your child that the soother is broken and needs to go in the garbage. Some kids seem to accept that if it’s broken, it cannot be used anymore and simply move on. Others may use that as an opportunity to dig through the house to find their backups, so don’t be surprised if your child comes walking into the kitchen with another previously hidden treasure, but eventually they all end up “broken” and your child won’t have anymore backups to utilize.
Or a more gradual weaning process is something that can be done over a three-day period, you can start to wean your child off the soother by telling them they can only use it in the house. Whenever you go outside the house, tell them it stays behind until you come back. After a few days, you would start another three day period where you tell them that they can only have it during a specific period of time during the day. For example, only for 30 min during their screen time. Tell them that on the third day, it will be time to say goodbye to the soother for good, and then make sure you stick to the plan.
Be prepared for a few tantrums and tears, but don’t give in. I have found that parents are often far more worried about the idea of taking it away, than the actual reality of it. Most children are over it within a day or two.
However, if you’ve tried to help your child wean off the pacifier and have been unsuccessful or you think the act of removing the soother will bring World War 3 upon your home, don’t hesitate to sign up for a call with me and find out how I can help your child say good-bye to the pacifier for good.
I am a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who works with families to help them resolve their littles' sleep issues. As a mom of two littles herself, Katie has walked in the shoes of her clients and is passionate about helping them re-discover peaceful sleeps in their own homes.