Q&A: toddler with a pacifier

Dorie writes:

"I have a 16 month-old daughter and I am thinking about weaning her from her pacifier. She only uses it when she’s sleeping, maybe on long car rides, and if she’s teething or doesn’t feel well. The rest of the time she’s fine without it. The only advice I can find about this pertains to infants who awaken during the night and cry for their pacifiers. Is it hurting anything to continue letting her use it? Do you think it will be easier to take it away now or later? Also, any idea how I should go about doing this? I'm hoping you have experience with this."

Time for full disclosure here: I sucked my thumb until I was, um, 11. Years. 11 years old.

My mom figured if I was having my emotional needs met, then I must just need to suck, and she shouldn't try to stop me. I weaned myself from nursing, but kept on sucking my thumb. When I went to school I figured out immediately not to do it front of other kids, so I only did it at night before I went to bed. My teeth were fine (until a genetic tooth size problem that my brother, mother, and two cousins--none of whom sucked their thumbs--also have caught up with me and I got braces last year) and I never had any anxiety-related problems or other issues. FWIW, my orthodontist (who is quite well-respected) says that she doesn't think pacifier use or thumb-sucking does anything to your teeth unless you're doing them for hours each day.

My first son used one from 3 months to 8 months, and my "technique" for taking it away was that I forgot to bring any when we went on vacation and by the time I had a chance to get out to buy a new one he'd forgotten about them. (I highly recommend ineptness as a parenting technique.)

So my answer to you is that you should take it away if you want to, but if you don't feel the need to now, don't worry about it. It sounds like your daughter has a pretty good handle on her own emotional limits and uses it only when she really needs it, so you're not going to have that "4-year-old with a pacifier in her mouth constantly so you can't understand what she's saying" syndrome anyway. A 16-month-old is still a baby, and I'm guessing that having the "home base" of the pacifier is probably a good disciplinary tool to help her calm down so things don't devolve into bad situations when she's overtired or feeling crappy.

I don't know anyone who got rid of the pacifer at that age without a fight. It seems like it's easier to do earlier (when you substitute something else) or once the kid is 2 to 3 years old. There are two techniques for giving up pacifiers after the age of 2 that have worked well. The first is to let the kid buy something s/he really wants with the pacifiers. You call the store ahead of time and give your credit card number (or make other arrangements for payment), then the kid comes in with a bag full of all his or her pacifiers, and gives them to the clerk to pay for a new Thomas set or dollhouse or whatever. Then later if the kid asks for a pacifier, you can remind the kid that they bought the new toy with them, and if they want the pacifiers back they have to return the toy.

The other technique requires knowing someone who's having or adopting a baby. You tell your child that the new baby needs pacifiers to suck, and big girls/boys don't need pacifiers, so let's give your pacifiers to the new baby who needs them. It might take a few days of negotiation and discussion to get the child to agree to give the pacifiers. Then you wrap up the pacifiers as presents, and give them to the new baby (obviously the new baby's parents need to know ahead of time that you're giving a bunch of used, toddler-sized pacifiers!). If the child asks for the pacifiers later, reinforce what a loving gift it was to give the pacifiers to a baby who needs them, since your child is a big kid who doesn't anymore.

Both of these methods recognize that pacifiers aren't just physical tools, but are also emotional comforts that kids grow out of. Giving them to younger babies or using them to buy a new toy are ways of marking the passage from baby to "big kid" and give your child a measure of control over quitting that are more respectful than just saying "no more pacifiers!" and taking them away. I don't know if there's an easy way to do that with a kid under 21 or so months, and to me it doesn't seem worth it to jump through a bunch of hoops to get rid of a pacifier (the way it would to do something like nightweaning, which has an actual effect on the mother's emotional and physical state).

The bottom line is that for me, it wouldn't be worth it to try to take away the pacifier right now, and I'd rather not lose that tool in the anti-tantrum arsenal. It seems like one of those parenting issues that people get all het up about, but really, doesn't everyone with a 16-month-old have bigger fish to fry? But if it's just really nagging at you and you're dying to get rid of it, give it a try and see what happens. If it works, let us know and I'll post your results.