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Ditching the Pacifier

Let me just say before we get started, that I’m not strictly anti-pacifier. I mean, what mother could be? My three kids all used pacifiers and they saved my sanity in countless high-stress situations. They were especially helpful during long car rides, when they were cutting new teeth, and especially when I needed a few more minutes to prepare that bottle or finish making dinner. Just as they were on the edge of full-blown tears, in went the pacifier, and all was well again.

Pacifiers have benefits beyond preventing tantrums, as well. The AAP found that pacifiers can reduce the risk of SIDS, possibly due to the fact that baby has a harder time burying their face into soft bedding if they have a pacifier sticking out of their mouth. So given that very substantial and important consideration, I’m making the following recommendations based on the supposition that your baby is over a year old. That doesn’t mean this is irrelevant if your little one’s younger than that, but just make sure you’ve carefully considered the pros and cons of taking away the pacifier before you make a decision.

So here’s the conundrum from a sleep expert’s point of view; pacifiers can become a problem when it comes to sleep. If your baby is accustomed to falling asleep with a pacifier in, they almost always end up waking up in the night after it’s fallen out, and they begin crying until mom gets up, finds it, and pops it back in their mouth.

So first off, let’s look at why baby can’t just fall asleep with a pacifier in and then peacefully sleep through the night, and then we can look at some strategies for getting rid of the pacifier if you and baby are ready to take the plunge.

Sleep, for babies and adults alike, comes in cycles. Many of us are under the assumption that we fall asleep at the start of the night, go into a deeper sleep as the night goes on, then gradually come out of it as the morning rolls around.

It’s true that we go from light sleep to deep sleep and then back again, but it happens several times a night, depending on how long you sleep for. For adults, a full cycle typically takes somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes. For a baby, it’s closer to 50.

If your baby won’t go to sleep at bedtime without a pacifier in their mouth, then there’s a distinct possibility that they’re reliant on that pacifier to get to sleep. When they get to the end of a sleep cycle, they get into that very light stage of sleep and might actually wake up, at which point, they’re still tired, but they might have trouble getting back to sleep because, “Hey! Where’s the pacifier? I can’t get to sleep without my pacifier!”

And if they can’t find it, or they haven’t figured out how to put it in on their own yet, they’re going to get upset because they can’t get back to sleep, and they’re going to start crying for someone to come and rectify the situation. And that, right there, is the definition of what we in the sleep consulting field call a “sleep prop.” Sometimes it’s feeding, sometimes it’s rocking, sometimes it’s some crazy combination of a bunch of things, but essentially it’s something that baby relies on in order to get to sleep that they can’t provide on their own when they wake up in the night.

More than anything, that’s the secret to sleeping through the night. Getting rid of sleep props is, hands down, the most important component to getting your little one sleeping peacefully from the time you put them to bed until they wake up, happy and refreshed, in the morning.

So if you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s IT! That’s exactly what’s happening with my baby!” then you’re probably going to want to take some steps to get rid of that pacifier, and I’ve got a few tips to get you through the process as quickly and peacefully as possible.

When it comes to breaking bad habits, I’m a cold-turkey advocate, and this situation is no different. Toddlers do better with absolutes than they do with moderation, so my advice to parents is almost always to just pick a day to make the change, explain it to your little one, and then toss all the pacifiers into the trash.

Toddlers can often adjust to new situations remarkably easily so long as things are clear and consistent, so don’t save one for emergencies or just-in-case scenarios, because it will be too easy for you to fall back on the pacifier to get a quick solution if your baby is having trouble sleeping, and then you’re just causing confusion.

Alright, you’ve made the decision, you’ve explained the situation to your toddler, you’ve signed a mental contract with yourself that you’re not going to do it by half measures, and you’re ready to go all-in. What’s next?

Now’s the time to flex those creative muscles and come up with a plan. How are you going to spin this change in a positive way? Toddlers typically embrace the idea of growing into “big kids,” so marking it as a milestone can be a big help. Make sure to present the change as a very exciting and positive occasion.

One quick side note here: I’ve seen a lot of situations where parents with a toddler and a newborn or younger sibling in the house will give the older baby’s pacifiers to the younger one. On its face, this seems like a good idea, but it can breed some resentment from your toddler when they see their younger sibling sucking on their pacifier. If you’re able to, get rid of your toddler’s pacifiers and get different ones for the younger child.

So, you’ve laid the groundwork, your little one has grasped what’s going on, and the house is now free. Now you’re going to want to brace yourself, because in about 99% of all cases, your toddler’s going to go a little bit bananas while they adjust to the new reality. It’s nothing to be concerned about, we all get a little irritable when we’re breaking a habit, but I just want you to be aware that it’s almost never a seamless transition. There’s going to be some pushback.

When that pushback hits, and your toddler starts to lose it a little, my advice is distract, distract, distract. Keep some of their favorite treats on standby, have the iPad cartoons at the ready, and when they start to fuss about the lack of a pacifier, quickly turn their attention to something else.

You can acknowledge their frustration, offer them as much comfort and support as they need, but don’t apologize or give in. Remember that you’re the authority figure here and if you’ve decided that the pacifier is a thing of the past, that’s the way it is. Giving them a pacifier at this stage is only going to reinforce the idea that crying or fussing is an effective tool for getting their way.

Every toddler is obviously a unique individual, so use these guidelines in conjunction with your intuition, and within a few nights, maybe a week at the outside, your little one should be pacifier-free, and your whole family should be enjoying the benefits of those glorious, sleep-filled nights.