Have you ever had a love-hate relationship with something? Maybe social media – you love keeping up-to-date with your friends but hate the way it sucks up your free time? I think most parents feel this way about the pacifier. We love it because we know it gets our child to sleep but hate it because we know our child is actually dependent on it for sleep. In general, the pacifier is not a bad sleep prop. (And please note that I do mention the pacifier as a sleep prop. I would strongly suggest that the pacifier is kept in the crib at all times and not used for purposes other than sleeping.) If your child is using a pacifier for soothing and you are not required to replace it all night then it is actually OK. But, when you become a human ping-pong ball racing back-and-forth from your bed to your child’s crib to replace a fallen binky it is no longer a good sleep prop. Also, there comes a time in every toddler’s life when… dum du dum… they have become too old for the pacifier. Eek! I know, doing away with the pacifier can be a terrifying thought. So, when is the right time and how exactly do you get rid of it?
If we are working to establish healthy sleep habits with a baby under the age of six months it often makes most sense to ditch the pacifier at that point. Most children will not have the fine motor skills they need to replace it on their own until closer to 7 or 8 months. If we want a child to sleep independently then we do not want them waking up each and every time the pacifier falls out. A pacifier can absolutely deter progress and interfere with sleep for the child that is dependent on it and falls asleep with it her mouth but cannot replace it on her own. In that scenario it is better to simply teach your child to sleep without the pacifier at all. A baby of this age will generally adjust to sleeping without it in just a few nights and it should merely be a bump in the road to healthy sleep.
If we are working with a slightly older baby who does have the fine motor skills to replace the pacifier on his own then it may make sense to continue to utilize the binky as a sleep prop. If that’s the case, I would encourage lots and lots of practice during awake times in an effort to teach your child to put the pacifier in on his or her own. At every sleep period I would put him or her down without the pacifier, even if it means you’re putting it in baby’s hand and encouraging him to put it in his mouth on his own. You could also do a “binky sprinkle” and put several in the crib so that should one be lost during the night or during a nap your baby can replace it with another. If your little one is between the ages of 8 months and 2 years and has learned to replace the pacifier independently and is sleeping well then I would continue to use it at sleep times. Why? Because a child this young has become dependent on it and is too young to understand why we would potentially be taking it away. I would allow baby to continue to use it as a tool for self -soothing until he or she is old enough to participate in the decision.
However, if your little one is age two or older then it may be time for the transition to sleeping with no pacifier. Starting around the age of two children are old enough to understand a lot more than we give them credit for. Children two or older will be able to understand why you are getting rid of the pacifier and will be old enough to feel as though they are part of the decision, which gives them some control in the matter. That does not necessarily mean they will like this change but, you can prepare them so that they can feel a part of the plan. A few months back we did this in my household. Quite honestly, I was pretty nervous about this transition. But with some adequate prep work the transition went quite smoothly. Here is how we went about it:
When we started out-of-home childcare at a daycare center our daughters were 2 1/2 years old. Very quickly they started to learn from their peers. Within no time at all they wanted to potty train and wear underwear. They decided they were ready, were very self-motivated and learned to potty train in about a week. This kick started a whole slew of “big kid” accomplishments. They were more prone to do things on their own and tell us they were big enough to do things without our help. We used this as an opportunity to introduce the idea of getting rid of their pacifiers. We started to talk to them about how they were getting SO big and how proud of them we were. They were going to school now, getting themselves dressed, using the potty, riding their bikes etc. We mentioned how they were still using the pacifier but how many children at school were not. We explained how they got their pacifiers when they were babies but that pacifiers really were for babies. Pretty soon they were going to be big enough to sleep without them.
We then got several books on giving up pacifiers including “Bea Gives up her Pacifier” and “Pacifiers Are Not Forever.” These books really sparked my daughters’ curiosity and they wanted to read the books over and over again. They were clearly trying to figure this whole thing out on their own and understand what would happen. They asked a lot of questions about their pacifiers and we had several conversations about it. We did not rush this process! We made sure that we were very clear that when they were ready to give up their pacifiers they would not be getting new ones. That was a misconception I had to clarify several times! Once they understood this there were many occasions when we asked them if they were ready yet to which they replied “no.” So, we waited.
We also took a good look at our schedule and made sure that this transition did not coincide with other disruptions. For instance, we had to travel to two weddings in the fall and knew that it would not be wise to expect the girls to transition during a time when we were traveling -something that is not a regular occurrence in our household. We also made sure that we did not expect them to do this when we were traveling as a family, even if for just a long weekend. Mid-fall things sort of settled down, we were in a good daily routine, they had adjusted to daycare and potty training and we had no trips in the near future. We knew if we didn’t move ahead soon that it would be holiday season and that didn’t feel like a good time either. At that point we were sure they were ready and our pediatric dentist agreed that it was time to get rid of the pacifier. So, we had a family meeting and although we still phrased things in a way that let them feel as though they were part of the decision we told them they were ready to give up their pacifiers and we knew they could do it. Once again, we reminded them how big they were and how they did not need their pacifiers anymore because they had their loveys, stuffed animals and their crib was a snuggly place to be with or without a pacifier. We really instilled our confidence in them. We decided on a day when we would give their pacifiers to the “binky fairy” and we let the girls decide on how we would celebrate afterwards.
The big day:
On the big day (after naptime- we wanted to make sure they got in a restorative nap knowing bedtime would likely take a bit longer that night) we put all of their binkies in an envelope that they had decorated. They put them in on their own and they taped the envelope closed. We then put the envelopes on our front steps for the binky fairy and we headed out to the mall to go to Build a Bear Workshop to replace their beloved binkies with a new stuffed animal they would choose on their own.
We told the employees at the store why they were there, and of course they helped to make a big deal out of this too. Both of our daughters chose a new stuffed animal to replace their pacifiers. Afterwards, we went out for ice cream sundaes and of course they got to choose all of the toppings they wanted! We celebrated their accomplishment and their bravery for giving up their pacifiers.
That night, we started our bedtime routine a little bit early since we figured it would take them longer to fall to sleep without their pacifiers. To our surprise- there was barely any crying. The girls were fantastic! Pretty much right from the start nighttime sleep was uninterrupted. We had one or two nights of minimal crying at bedtime but other than that they were back on track and sleeping as usual. I was very pleased! Naps unfortunately were another story and did take a full two- three weeks to return to normal. There would be days when they simply skipped their nap entirely or days they fell asleep way too late for their nap. In the meantime, to avoid overtiredness I compensated for missed naps with a super early bedtime (think 5 PM!). Because I was able to keep them well rested with an early bedtime, nighttime sleep continued to be consolidated and uninterrupted. We never experienced early morning wakings and things were going pretty well. After a couple weeks though, I’ll admit I was losing my patience with naps. However, I knew better than to throw in the towel. I routinely remind families to be patient and persistent. Sleep is a marathon and not a sprint and sometimes it just takes awhile for things to click. My daughters’ naps did return to normal and they did learn to sleep without their pacifier at all sleep periods.
Something to note is that my daughters were about two years and nine months when we made this transition. Although I firmly believe that children are very capable of napping well beyond the age of three I do find that children are much more able to fight nap time as they near their third birthday. In hindsight I think if I had made this transition slightly earlier their drive to sleep at naptime would have been that much greater and naps probably would not have taken quite so long to get back on track.
All in all, despite my hesitation to go ahead and get rid of the pacifiers it was a pretty smooth process. I attribute the ease of the transition to the multiple conversations we had preparing them for this change and all the prep work that we did. Because of the way we celebrated they were also very proud of themselves and excited to tell their teachers the next day at school and of course their grandparents and big cousins.
The gist of it is that if it is time to give up the pacifier then put in some work upfront and know that your child will return to their old sleep habits in no time if you maintain consistency. If you have laid the foundation for healthy sleep that foundation will remain even once the pacifier is long gone!
Lauren Stauffer is a Family Sleep Institute certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and owner of Well Rested Baby. She offers a host of services including in person, phone, email, and FaceTime consultations that can be tailored to meet any family’s needs and schedule. Please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation. Be sure to follow WRB on Facebook for more great sleep tips!