The Pacifier: When and How to Help your Baby or Toddler Learn to Sleep Without it – Laura Swartz with Healthy, Happy Sleep – Atlanta, GA

Pacifiers can be a godsend for young babies who have a strong need to suck, but they can quickly become a sleep association that many parents come to despise. The constant sprint to replace them can be exhausting, and frustrating, and disruptive to everyone’s sleep! When is the best time to drop the pacifier, how can it be done, and is it ok to use it as a sleep aid in the early months or years?

There are many babies who legitimately benefit from using a pacifier. Babies with acid reflux or colic are perfect examples. Also, as I mentioned above, there are babies who are soothed by sucking, and overfeeding to appease this need isn’t a healthy option, so we welcome a substitute.

For these babies, it’s perfectly fine to offer the pacifier when needed, but be careful not to overuse it! Many times we get into the habit of giving it before every sleep period, or immediately after each feeding, or every time they’re placed in the car seat, which actually creates a need, or association, when there wasn’t one there to begin with! Waiting to use it when it’s truly needed will make the weaning process so much easier, and take away the tendency toward dependency.

In my opinion, there are three optimal times to nix the pacifier:

  • Before the 12-week mark. The reason for this timing is because babies start forming sleep associations after this point. If you can gradually remove it from sleep periods before then, your baby will thank you later!
  • During formal sleep training if your baby is too young to replace it him/herself.If you’re using a gentle method, this doesn’t pertain to your baby! However, if you’re using an approach that involves providing more independence, some crying, etc. then doing it all at once will be better in the long run. If your baby easily replaces the pacifier independently during sleep periods, the third option is for you!
  • Take it away either a few months before the crib-to-bed transition takes place, or after your toddler has transitioned into a regular sized/toddler bed and has healthy sleep practices in place, typically around the 2 ½ yr. mark. The reason for this is because at this age we can use a bit of logic beforehand, during the transition and in the aftermath of learning how to sleep without it. They also have some reliably sound sleep habits in place by this point, so they have a lot going in their favor.

With my own children, 4 out of 6 of them used a pacifier to help them fall asleep. 1 of them stopped using it during sleep training at 7 months, another at 18 months and the other 2 stopped at the 2-½ year mark. With 3 of the 4 kids it went smoothly, the easiest being the 7- month-old. During sleep training we stopped popping it in every 5 minutes and within 2 nights it was a thing of the past. (Why did I wait so long???)

The hardest was, you guessed it, the 18 month-old. She just couldn’t fall asleep without it and I felt like I was torturing her until she finally got the hang of it. She was too young to understand what was going on, and old enough to put up a long, hard fight against self-soothing in a new way. Ugh. I regret the decision to take it at that age. It took the other three kids 2 weeks or less to adjust, but for her it was a few months before she was sleeping consistently well again. I want to add that in all circumstances it helped that we kept the pacifier in the bed at all times and never used it for other purposes other than for sleep starting at 5/6 months of age. Weaning it from one single association is a lot easier than removing it as a 24/7 comfort object!

For both of the 2-½ year-olds we handled it the same way by starting the discussion 2 weeks beforen the big day. We’d occasionally say things like, “You’re getting so grown up that soon your paci won’t work anymore, did you know that? When it doesn’t work you’ll have something special to take its place at bedtime. Get ready!” We’d also point out that older children/siblings in their life don’t use them anymore, etc.

On the big night I secretly used scissors to cut the bulb part off of every pacifier in the house (to make sure we didn’t wimp out and give in when it got tough!), then I placed them back in their bed. When they put it in their mouth before sleep it didn’t work right. They took it out of their mouth and looked at it for a second and tried again. My oldest immediately got up, walked to the kitchen and threw it into the trashcan saying, “My paci broken now.” 🙁 But after that he didn’t skip a beat – slept great after just 2 days and nights of barely any adjustment. My other son (fourth child) took it a lot harder and continued to try to make it work, even though there wasn’t anything to suck on. For a few nights he continued taking it to bed with him and cried more and settled less for about 2 weeks. I made sure to stick with early bedtimes until the transition was behind us. After that point it was smooth sailing. We did get them each a special toy to take to bed with them, of course Thomas the Train saved the day!

I hope it’s helpful to know that using the pacifier isn’t a bad move, and as long as you know when to use it and when to stop, your little one will be just fine!