Let me just say before I get started, I’m not strictly anti-pacifier.
What mother could be? We’ve all been saved from a major baby meltdown by the pacifier. Maybe we missed our baby’s sleep window and they are getting cranky. Maybe there was an unexpected bump on the head, maybe you have to take a dog treat out of their mouth. Your baby starts to get upset and you know what will inevitably follow. In goes the pacifier and all is well!
Pacifiers have benefits beyond preventing meltdowns, 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 important consideration, I’m making the following recommendations based on the assumption that your baby is over a year old. That doesn’t mean this is irrelevant if your child is younger than one, just make sure you’ve carefully considered the pros and cons of taking away the pacifier before you make a decision.
Here is the challenge from a sleep expert’s point of view; pacifiers can become a problem when it comes to sleep. If 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. They will start to protest until mom gets up, finds the pacifier and pops it back in.
Why can't a pacifier aid in a full, peaceful night of sleep?
Sleep (for everyone) 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 wake up as the morning rolls around.
It’s true that we go from light sleep to deep sleep and then back again, but it actually happens several times a night, depending on how long you sleep. A full cycle for an adult typically lasts 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, it’s very possible that they’re reliant on that pacifier to get to sleep. When your baby is in the very light stage of sleep at the end of a sleep cycle, it’s likely that they will wake up. At this point they are still tired and want to keep sleeping but will have trouble falling back asleep because they need the pacifier to do so!
If they can’t find it, or 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!
That is the very definition of what we in the sleep consulting field call a “sleep prop.” It could be a pacifier, feeding, rocking, or a crazy combination of things. Essentially it’s something baby relies on in order to get to sleep that they cannot provide for themselves.
Getting rid of sleep props is, hands down, the most important component to getting your little one sleeping peacefully from bedtime until they wake up, happy and refreshed in the morning. It’s the secret to sleeping through the night.
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. I've got some 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. I think it is the best route for most children. In general, toddlers do better with absolutes than they do with moderation. Clear expectations go a long way. My advice to parents is to pick a day to make the change, explain it to your little one, and throw the pacifiers in the trash!
Toddlers often adjust to new situations remarkably easily as long as things are clear and consistent. Do yourself a favor and don’t save a few pacifiers for a just-in-case scenario. It will be too easy to fall back on and will just cause confusion.
Now you are ready. You’ve made the decision to drop the pacifier, explained it to your toddler, and committed to going all in. What’s next?
Now is the time to get creative. How can you spin this change in a positive way? Toddlers typically embrace the idea of growing into “big kids,” so mark it as a big milestone. Talk about it in a way that makes it an exciting occasion. Even if you are dreading it!
Some children like the idea of a “Pacifier Fairy”. If they leave their pacifiers on the front porch before bed, the fairy will come collect them and leave a special surprise. This might be something you want to try and it might not. The point is, come up with something that your child will respond well to.
One quick side note: I recommend NOT doing a transfer of pacifiers from a toddler to a younger sibling or new baby. This can create some unnecessary resentment 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 done all the groundwork you can, your little one understands what is happening and your house is pacifier-free. Now brace yourself. Your toddler is very likely going to protest this new reality. It’s nothing to be concerned about, we all get irritable when we’re breaking a habit, just be aware that it’s almost never a seamless transition. There’s going to be some pushback.
When that pushback hits, acknowledge their frustration, offer them comfort and support, but don’t give in. If it’s a daytime habit you are breaking, try distracting them with their favorite toy, a snack, or playtime outside.
Remember, 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. If you end up giving in after some protest on their end, you are reinforcing the idea that crying or fussing is how they can get their way.
Every toddler is obviously a unique individual, so use these guidelines in conjunction with your intuition. Within a few nights, maybe a week at the most, your little one should be pacifier free and your whole family should be enjoying the benefits of glorious, sleep-filled nights.