Ahhh. The sweet sound of satisfying silence when the pacifier does its job soothing a fussy baby. But there's a moment in many parents' lives when they go from praising the pacifier for the peace and comfort it brings their child (and everyone else in the house) to nonstop worrying over their aging toddler's attachment to the nuk. So we chatted with a pediatrician, a psychologist and a child behavior specialist for their insights and tips on the right time and age to phase out the paci—and exactly how to call it quits.
But First: Why We Love Pacifiers!
“Babies are born with an inherent need to suck—the sucking reflex,” says Lauren Crosby, MD, FAAP, of La Peer Pediatrics. Pacifiers do a great job of satisfying that need (and can even give a breastfeeding mom’s nipples a break!) while also soothing a baby, especially during times when they’re upset or falling asleep. It has also been shown that using a pacifier can reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), Crosby adds. Not all babies take to pacis, but those who do can really benefit from their simple magic.
Time It Well
Saying goodbye to the binky can be done at almost any time, depending upon what works for the baby and the parents or caregivers. But there are some key guidelines that experts recommend. According to Sari Broda, a certified child sleep consultant, certified lactation counselor and child behavior specialist on the Parenting + network, a baby’s strong desire to suck drops between 4 and 6 months. At that point, the pacifier becomes more of a soothing object and sleep cue than an actual need, so this is one window of opportunity where you may want to stop offering it. If you don’t ditch the paci in the first year though, Broda recommends waiting until the child is 3 years old; otherwise, taking it away can really disrupt your tot’s sleep. That being said, she has seen some families successfully drop the paci between 1 and 3 years without any major issues.
Crosby notes that using the paci past age 1 can delay speech and inhibit proper word articulation, and past age 3 may result in tooth alignment issues. If your child is getting frequent ear infections (studies have shown a correlation between the two), then you may want to get rid of it sooner. What’s more, some little ones wake throughout the night crying for the paci to be put back in. If that’s not working for your family, then you should feel empowered to stop using the pacifier. Just be sure to avoid the transition right before a major life event, like moving homes.
Talk About It Ahead of Time
Licensed clinical psychologist Sarah Bren, Ph.D., also on the Parenting + network, urges parents to help their children prepare in advance for any kind of transition, whether it’s saying goodbye to a pacifier, starting a new daycare program, welcoming a new sibling into the family or moving into a big kid bed. Talk about the feelings they might have and what they can do. “You might feel frustrated if you’re upset and want your pacifier. What can you do instead?” Involving children in the process helps them feel more in control and will tap into their early problem-solving skills.
This advice not only applies to older toddlers, but to babies as well. “We need to talk to our kids about everything,” Broda says. “Even if it’s a 6-month-old... explain it to them.” Tell your baby that they’ll no longer be using the pacifier and that you know they’ll still be okay. Your baby may cry for a few nights or struggle to sleep, in which case you might want to do some sleep training, Broda says. But it shouldn’t drag on for weeks because it’s typically an easier transition to drop the paci before 12 months.
With older toddlers, you can have more of a dialogue, of course. Maybe tell a silly story about the pacifier and why it’s leaving your home, or give your kiddo a lovey blanket or stuffed animal for comfort, Broda suggests. Keep the conversation positive and upbeat.
If your child is using the pacifier all the time, you can start to limit it to sleep or stressful situations like doctor's visits, Crosby says. Then you can either go cold turkey by cutting off the tip or acting as the binky fairy and taking the pacifier at night while leaving a gift for your child. If you prefer a more gradual approach, you can help your child hold a favorite lovey and take deep "magic breaths" together, Crosby says. Or praise your child for their patience as you stretch out the time (first just seconds, then work up to minutes) before you hand over the pacifier. And be sure to do something supportive to help your child manage the waiting, like read together or play hand games.
Don’t Link Paci to Being a Baby
As tempting as it may be to tell your child that pacifiers are for babies, don’t do it. They are going to want it sometimes, says Bren, and saying “You’re a big girl/boy now,” will just confuse them or make them feel ambivalent about it all. Normalize the fact that it’s a tricky process and you’ll remove the shame from the experience. And rest assured that this type of development can fluctuate. Your child will feel like a big kid one day and more like a baby the next. And that’s okay!
Allow Them to Be Upset
As with any big change, you can expect your child to feel sad or mad about their pacifier not being readily available. Allow them to be upset, validate their feelings and reflect it back to them before you plug them with a pacifier, Bren says. Try saying: “You’re feeling frustrated. I understand. We’re not going to have pacis right now. But we can [do another activity, like read a book, cuddle on the couch, hug your Teddy bear].” The idea is to move more slowly and mindfully and to give your child the time and space to feel a range of emotions rather than turn off their distress like a light switch.
And if your child is having a hard time, try to muster as much patience and empathy as you can, Crosby adds. Try to be consistent and calm, even as they’re upset. Then just keep yourselves busy with plenty of distracting activities.
Gather Your Support System
This is one of those times where it’s important to reach out to friends and family for support. You could let them know the transition you’re about to make and ask for advice or their help, whether that’s dropping off dinners for the week you’re pulling the paci or babysitting for a few hours while you catch a break.
Stick with the Plan
Consistency is very important, especially for older kids, so once you come up with a plan that works for your family, you should stick to it, Broda says. Provide your little one with a routine and predictable expectations to help ensure that saying goodbye to the paci is as quick of a process as possible.
Whitney Harris is a freelance writer and mother of three who loves reading, running, and dancing like a teen on TikTok. Visit her here.
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