Prevent Pacifier Addiction With A Focus on Building Self-Calming Without Plastic

Parents of newborns are concerned that pacifier use will lead to pacifier “addiction” in later infancy and toddlerhood.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Pacifier addicts are made, not born.  Parents should not feel guilty about the difficulty they encounter with pacifier weaning, since no one explains what pacifiers do for babies and how to prevent accidental addiction in an older infant.  It starts out as a natural way to soothe a newborn.  No one intends for things to get out of hand. Happiest Baby on the Block even includes sucking as one of the 5 techniques that make up the calming reflex response for newborns.  Pacifiers can be a way to incorporate the calming action of sucking, but then as a child gets older, he should be developing more mature coping methods as well.  Here is what you need to know:

Why pacifiers work so well for younger babies:

  • the need to suck is something your baby was born with.  Fetal ultrasounds show them sucking their thumbs.  Developmental reflexes support sucking at birth.  The shape of the newborn jaw and tongue make it easier for newborns to get a secure and strong seal.  A newborn has more ability to interpret sensory information from the mouth than the eyes or hands, but no ability to keep their fingers in their mouth to suck until 2-3 months of age.
  • this biological need to suck helps them learn to nurse right away, and can calm them quickly in the first 6 months of life.  The ability to self-calm is a learned skill, and develops over the first years.  Babies begin learning to calm themselves down in the first 12 months of life.  If we teach them.

The slide down the slippery slope to pacifier addiction can be prevented:

  • after 6 months, babies still using pacifiers have no biological need to suck, but have the ability to remember their routine.  It can now be a habitual need, not a physical one.
  • some babies aren’t so easy to calm after swaddling and swinging have ended.   Using white noise, a blanket swaddle with the arms out/swaddle garments that have the arms free, and plenty of opportunities for cuddling, rocking, nursing or bottle feeding help the transition for sleep.
  • building early communication skills and responding quickly and effectively to frustration and fatigue in older infants can minimize or prevent the use of pacifiers to calm them during the day.  Start Patience Stretching and the Fast Food Rule (from The Happiest Toddler on the Block) as soon as possible.  See my blog posts on these techniques How To Get Your Toddler To Wait For Anything (Hint: They hear “Wait” as “No”)Taming Toddler Tantrums Using Sympathetic Reframing.
  • families that haven’t established effective sleep routines can run for the pacifier to end bedtime fussiness, rather than taking a wide-angle look at the way they manage naps and bedtime.  Creating a firm but flexible sleep routine isn’t easy.  Step 1 is accepting that building calmness throughout the day (by crafting a daily eating and playing schedule that supports good sleep) is like investing money in the bank for retirement.  It seems a long, long way off until the time arrives when you need the cash.  This may mean that the working parent plays energetically with the baby in the morning or only plays quietly at night.
  • all caregivers, including daycare and nannies, have to be on-board with your exact routines.  No routine at all can be better for a baby than one routine with parents, one with the daycare, and one when grandma watches him on Saturdays.  Imagine if you went to sleep with music playing on Mondays, left Jimmy Fallon on for Thursdays, and had it quiet but the lights are on for Fridays.  Very disorganizing.  This is not easy to coordinate, and many families default to the pacifier to tie it all together.
  • changing the attachment from a pacifier to a “lovey”, which is a transition object that the child can hold and cuddle, is often very helpful.   Switching to thumb-sucking has been shown to be a potential issue for dental malformation. Holding a lovey has not.  This lovey could be a small toy, a tiny blanket, etc.
  • the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pacifier use until 12 months to prevent SIDS.  If you follow that plan, you need a strong plan to get rid of the pacifier from an older, stronger willed and wiser baby.  It makes complete sense for safety, but parents need to know that it will take longer and be harder to eliminate the pacifier as the child gets older.
  • children who have spirited temperaments, and families that have difficulty creating and establishing routines, often struggle to successfully change any familiar pattern of behavior.  The pacifier can seem like the only sure fix for a child that gets upset easily or has to deal with a lot of unpredictability in their day.  The problem with running to the next idea too quickly is that some children are going to need a few days or even a week for any strategy to become familiar enough to tolerate.  Until then, you can’t clearly see what is going to work or not work.  My favorite book that gives practical advice on creating sleep routines for the strongest-willed babies  is “The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems”.  If you have an older child with a pacifier addiction, check out  Weaning the Pacifier From An Older Child for ideas targeted to getting rid of a pacifier once an addiction has set in.

The most important life skill your baby will learn in the first few years may not be walking or talking.  It may be the ability to calm himself down in times of change and frustration.  Thoughtful planning and execution of a plan can avoid pacifier addiction but also build a skill he will use for the rest of his life.

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