In the early months of your infant's life, pacifiers can be invaluable—especially if you have a particularly fussy or colicky baby. Much of this has to do with the fact that sucking can be both soothing and calming for infants.
"Babies love to suck—it’s one of the reflexes they’re born with, plus sucking provides comfort for them," says Sharon Mazel, a mom of four, parenting and pregnancy coach, and author of the upcoming book"Bite-Sized Parenting: Your Baby’s First Year." Mazel also points out the plethora of evidence reflecting that sucking on a pacifier during sleep reduces the risk of SIDS.
But as your child gets older, pacifiers become less helpful and can start to interfere with their dental health and speech development. They can even increase the likelihood of illnesses or ear infections. While most kids wean themselves between ages 2 and 4, others need a little extra help saying farewell to their beloved binky.
Of course, convincing your child that it is time to get rid of the pacifier can be tricky—especially if they are a little older. But there are some great strategies you can implement that will help your little one say goodbye to the pacifier once and for all. Here is what you need to know about pacifiers, including how to phase them out when you're ready.
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What You Need to Know About Pacifiers
In general, pacifiers are remarkably soothing tools—and they are easier to wean kids from than thumb-sucking. They also can be useful in helping your baby self-soothe when they are upset or stressed.
"Sucking is a survival instinct and has been found to lower a baby's heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels," says Jilly Blakenship, RN, MPH, IBCLC, a neonatal nurse, international board-certified lactation consultant, sleep consultant, and mom of two. "Many babies suck their thumbs in the womb. For toddlers, pacifiers serve as emotional soothers rather than instinctive."
But just like with thumb-sucking, pacifier use is a habit that will need to be broken. For this reason, you may want to consider limiting pacifier use to only sleep times after your baby is 6 months old says Mazel.
Sharon Mazel, Parenting Coach
Babies or toddlers who are plugged up with the pacifier all the time won’t have the opportunity to explore the environment orally, which is a crucial way babies practice their social skills, or work on their language skills.
— Sharon Mazel, Parenting Coach
"Putting limits on pacifier use [early on] will make the weaning process down the road a little easier," Mazel says. "Plus, babies or toddlers who are plugged up with the pacifier all the time won’t have the opportunity to explore the environment orally, which is a crucial way babies practice their social skills, or work on their language skills. It’s hard to speak with a pacifier in the mouth."
In general, try not to use a pacifier as your immediate soothing response for your little baby, she adds. Instead see if you can turn to rocking, reading, cuddling, singing, changing, burping, or feeding first.
"But if it's the only thing that works, go for it," Mazel says. "Just try to have a plan for when and how to wean so it doesn't turn into a [difficult] habit to break."
Pros and Cons of Pacifier Use in Breastfed Babies
Why Weaning Off a Pacifier Is Important
While pacifiers offer a number of advantages when your child is an infant, as your baby gets older,the risk starts to outweigh the benefits. Not only will your baby have a higher chance of developing middle ear infections than those who do not regularly use pacifiers, prolonged use—particularly after the age of 2—may lead to dental issues.
In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Dental Association (ADA), overusing a pacifier can cause misalignment of your baby's teeth, changes in the shape of the roof of their mouth, and improper mouth development.
"Prolonged pacifier use may lead to dental malocclusion, increase incidence of otitis media and early weaning of breastfeeding," says Heather Sever, DO, a pediatrician for Cleveland Clinic Children's. "Dental complications from pacifiers typically occur between the ages of 2 and 4 years. [Plus,] pacifiers are often colonized with candida (yeast) or bacterial species."
What's more, Dr. Sever indicates that latex pacifiers tend to have more germs compared to silicone ones.For this reason, pacifiers should be boiled in water or put through a sanitary cycle of the dishwasher if your baby is younger than 6 months old, she says.After 6 months of age, they can be cleaned with soap and water.
Continued use of a pacifier through the preschool years also allows the habit to become more entrenched, making it harder for you to wean them, adds Mazel. The sooner you can reduce your baby's dependance on a pacifier, the easier it will be on both of you.
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When to Begin Weaning Off a Pacifier
According to Dr. Sever, the ideal time to wean your baby off the pacifier is between 6 and 9 months of age to help cut down on the incidence of ear infectionsand to avoid using the pacifier as a security blanket.
"Removing the pacifier may cause anxiety," she says. "Try distracting your child with toys, activities, songs, or massages."
Amna Husain, MD, IBCLC
As a pediatrician, I recommend stopping before 2 years of age, as generally you should be starting to move away from bottle nipples for drinking purposes by 18 months.
— Amna Husain, MD, IBCLC
If your child is a toddler or a preschooler, it's not too late to start the weaning process. But to prevent dental problems and to make weaning easier, experts agree that you should begin sooner rather than later.
"As a pediatrician, I recommend stopping [pacifiers] before 2 years of age, as generally you should be starting to move away from bottle nipples for drinking purposes by 18 months," says Amna Husain, MD, IBCLC, a pediatrician, international board-certified lactation consultant, and CeraVe Baby expert consultant with Pure Direct Pediatrics in New Jersey.
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Guide to Weaning Off a Pacifier
Letting go of the pacifier can be challenging—especially if your child is older. But there are things you can do to make the process a little easier. The first step is to consider your baby's age.
"How you wean will depend on the age of your child," says Mazel. "For some young babies, weaning cold turkey could work and may be easiest. The cold turkey approach can also work for toddlers, but some tots may put up a fight if you do it that way and would do better with more time to acclimate. A more gradual approach is probably best for older toddlers—though every child is different."
Make sure you consider your child's temperament as you begin the weaning process, and don't be afraid to get creative. Your child will adapt to life without a pacifier much more quickly if you are gentle and patient in your approach. Here are some pacifier weaning strategies you can use depending on your little one's age.
How to Wean a Baby
If your child is an older infant, you will want to phase out the use of a pacifier. Ideally, you should only give your baby the pacifier when they want to suck but are not hungry, suggests Dr. Sever. You also want to avoid offering a pacifier every time your baby cries.
Heather Sever, DO
Keep the pacifier out of sight when not in use.Once you have taken the pacifier away, do not bring it back.
— Heather Sever, DO
"Utilize other soothing techniques like rocking, singing, or swaddling," she says."Keep the pacifier out-of-sight when not in use.Once you have taken the pacifier away, do not bring it back."
You also can limit your baby's pacifier use to bedtime with the goal of weaning them. For instance, Blakenship suggests letting your baby suck on the pacifier to get calm and drowsy before sleep. Then, she suggests gently breaking the seal on their latch before they’re in a deep sleep. The goal is to only break the seal and leave it in their mouth while they fall asleep.
"Tomorrow, do the same," she says. "But break the seal a little bit earlier. If they startle awake, the pacifier is right there for them to latch back onto."
Each day, you should break the seal even earlier. Once you can easily break the seal and they’re able to fall into a deep sleep without sucking, you will know you're on your way, she says. After that, it's time to stop offering the pacifier as a way to get drowsy. She suggests rocking, bouncing, or patting your baby to help them get sleepy.
"Stop offering the pacifier during the day once nights are going easily," Blakenship adds. "This method is gentle and gradual, so it will take some patience and time. Some days will be better than others. But in a few days' time, you will be amazed at the progress made."
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How to Wean a Toddler or Preschooler
If you have a toddler or preschooler who you are trying to wean off a pacifier, you may want to start by limiting when they can use it (if you haven't done so already). Then, you want to introduce the idea that it’s almost time to say bye-bye to the pacifier, says Mazel.
"You can create some excitement around the whole weaning idea so it feels celebratory instead of sad," she says. "Be sure to provide extra hugs, cuddles, and comfort—even a blanket or stuffed animal if your tot would go for that—during the weaning process to make up for any lost comfort they might have gotten from the pacifier."
One idea is to have your child help you gather up all of their pacifiers and put them on the table before bed. When they wake in the morning, the pacifiers are gone, and a reward is in their place, such as a toy they have been wanting for a while, or something else they might find exciting.
"You also can stage a visit from the 'Pacifier Fairy,'" says Mazel. "Tell your toddler thepacifier fairy will collect the pacifiers when your little one is done with them. Then leave the pacis in a box and replace them with a toy. You can even create a goodbye ceremony where your toddler throws out all the pacifiers on their own."
Jilly Blakenship, RN, MPH, IBCLC
Consider your child’s personality. Wean off the pacifier slowly if you have a child that finds it difficult to adapt to change. On the other hand, if your little one is easy-going and adapts quickly, you can go cold turkey and be done with it.
— Jilly Blakenship, RN, MPH, IBCLC
It's also important to provide additional emotional and physical comfort, Blakenship says. Give extra hugs during the day, at naptime, and at bedtime to help them calm down and feel supported now that they don’t have the pacifier anymore.
"If they’re above the age of 12 months, offer a transitional object like a lovey or stuffed animal they can cuddle," she says. "[You also should] consider your child’s personality. For example, wean off the pacifier slowly if you have a child that finds it difficult to adapt to change. On the other hand, if your little one is easy-going and adapts quickly, you can go cold turkey and be done with it."
Finally, you should get your toddler or preschooler to take an active role. Doing so may encourage them to stick with the weaning process. Likewise, if they lose their pacifier, don't tear the house apart looking for it. And, don't offer to buy replacements. This allows them to accept that the pacifier is not a permanent part of their life.
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It's also important to consider how you are using a pacifier. For instance, you don't want to use a pacifier to try to meet your child's emotional needs—especially if there are other ways they can find comfort.
"If your child wants to hug or talk, they’re looking for your affection," says Blakenship. "Only offer the pacifier as a soothing aid or for sleep. If your child is happy, don’t let them to suck on a pacifier. It’s unnecessary and they should be playing, talking, and exploring instead."
You also should avoid putting bitter-tasting substances on the pacifier. This might just cause more stress and anxiety. And, you also should not cut off the tip of the pacifier due to the fact that you could inadvertently create a choking hazard.
"Cutting off the tip of a pacifier is unsafe as it can lead to sharper, uneven edges on the pacifier that could cause an injury inside the mouth," says Dr. Husain.
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A Word From Verywell
While weaning your child off of a pacifier may seem challenging at first, rest assured that your child will eventually let go of their binky. The key is to refrain from forcing them to give up the pacifier or pushing the issue and creating unnecessary anxiety and stress. Be patient, and help empower your little one to learn other ways of self-soothing.
If you have been trying to wean your child off of a pacifier and are continuing to have difficulties or if your little one seems unduly stressed or anxious about the process, stop for a while and revisit it again in a month or so. You also can talk to your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider for advice.
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