Bye-Bye, Binky: Weaning Baby Off of Pacifier

My daughter turned me into a pacifier proselytizer. Then I had to help her quit.

Baby giving up pacifier Illustrations by Jennifer Taylor

It was love at first suck. My daughter Stella was a Binky junkie, and for her first two years we didn't even pretend that she could quit. When she needed her pacifier and it wasn't immediately available, she would get positively apoplectic, crying so hard she didn't even make a sound. So my husband and I learned pretty quickly that it was better to leave the house without a wallet, without keys, without a coat in the dead of winter, than to leave without a pacifier. If we happened to find ourselves without one, we'd drop everything and remedy that -- quickly.

I wasn't always a Binky enabler. When my oldest, Giovanni, was born, I turned up my nose at pacifiers -- and parents who relied on them. My son never developed the habit. He did, however, develop a boob habit, and by his first birthday I'd become a human pacifier. So by the time my daughter was born, a year later, I was considering becoming a Binky believer.

It helped too, when I learned that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) endorses pacifier use at bed- and naptime, as it's been shown to help decrease a baby's risk for sudden infant death syndrome. Doctors don't know precisely why this works. "We think that when a baby is using her oral/facial muscles to suck on a pacifier, she has an increased consciousness and is more easily aroused," says Deb Lonzer, M.D., chair of the department of community pediatrics at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital, in Ohio.

My only remaining concern was the vague but looming threat of "nipple confusion," which, to be honest, sounds more like a malady in a B movie than a legitimate medical phenomenon. So I turned to New York City lactation consultant Freda Rosenfeld, who told me that she doesn't believe nipple confusion is real for most babies. Still, "for babies who aren't thriving, it can be easier to suck on the pacifier than to nurse, so they may not eat enough," she maintains, which is why she advises that parents wait to introduce a pacifier until their baby is gaining weight nicely and nursing well (the AAP says a month should do it).

I intended to follow this advice, but my husband, less neurotic than I am, took matters into his own hands. When Stella was about 2 weeks old, he popped a pacifier into her mouth when she woke at 3 a.m. Voil?! She went right back to sleep. And she slept -- for five, six, sometimes seven hours at a time. It was as if the heavens had dropped the pacifier into our sleep-deprived laps.

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    The Honeymoon Period

    Once Stella and her pacifier had been joined together, nothing could tear them asunder. But I wouldn't have even thought to try. The Binky was my ace in the hole, my offer she couldn't refuse, and the one thing that kept us all sane (and sleeping).

    For some babies, though, the Binky is an acquired taste, like foie gras. "If it doesn't work initially that doesn't mean it's never going to work," says Dr. Lonzer, who recommends that parents initially let their kids try a bunch of different types.

    In the beginning, a pacifier can do no wrong, and parents of Binky-lovers are likely to be as enamored as their kids. "My daughter, Madison, had an insatiable appetite for the Binky. She slept with three -- one in her mouth and one in each hand," admits mom Kim MacGregor, of Toronto, Ontario. "I would stand in the darkened doorway and bite my tongue to keep from laughing," she says.

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    Reality Bites

    The honeymoon phase doesn't last forever though -- at least for many parents. Somewhere around the end of the first year, the downside of life with Binky surfaces. Maybe your child cries every time the pacifier falls out of her mouth and onto the floor, which means you're bumbling around in the dark at 4 a.m., searching for the one thing that will soothe her. Or maybe what bugs you is the incessant pacifier-dropping: "My daughter, Haven, dropped them at the store, outside, in airplanes. Anywhere dirty," says Heather Elison, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "I used to rinse them off every time, but I got to the point where just blowing on it would suffice." Or perhaps it's the fact that your kid has started to talk with the plastic plug still stuck in her mouth. Watching my 2-year-old pop her Binky out, speak in complete sentences, and then pop it right back in was somewhat disconcerting. The day she used the word ridiculous in between sucks was the day I asked my husband if maybe she wasn't getting a little big for it. "I don't know," he replied, "What's the general rule of thumb?"

    The rule of thumb, according to my parents, my grandmother, and every stranger on the street, was that weaning was long past due. "Oh, you're so cute!" passersby would coo at Stella. "But you're too big to be using a pacifier. You're not a baby anymore!" What had been my baby's adorable habit was now my toddler's mark of shame. "Once children get past the age of 1, it can be a social stigma," agrees family therapist Bette Alkazian, founder of Balanced Parenting, in Thousand Oaks, California. "And parents can feel like it reflects on their parenting, that it represents an indulgence, a fearfulness of setting limits," she adds.

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    Facing the Facts

    In addition to being embarrassed, I began to wonder: Is there anything actually harmful about long-term pacifier use? Different doctors have different opinions -- but most pediatricians agree that you should ideally wean by age 2, since pacifier use could be an obstacle in speech development (clearly, this wasn't impairing Stella, however). Also, several recent studies have shown that heavy pacifier use increases ear infections in infants and older children. And then, of course, there's the dental downside. Erin Gutierrez, of Chicago, discovered these consequences the hard way when she took her recently weaned 3?-year-old, Jordan, to the dentist. "She only used her Binky for naps and at nighttime, but it left its mark with a serious crossbite that will need to be fixed with an expander -- which is painful and expensive," Gutierrrez laments.

    Luke Matranga, D.D.S., a dentist in Omaha, explains that there are two kinds of damage that may occur from long-term, intensive pacifier use. Most commonly, kids may have some tooth movement known as an open bite, where there's space between the top and bottom front teeth, even when the back teeth are closed. This usually corrects itself within six months of giving up the pacifier. But some kids may also end up with a crossbite, like Jordan, which is when the upper arch of the mouth narrows. And that, Dr. Matranga says, won't go away without intervention.

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    The Long Goodbye

    With the consequences in mind, we knew it was time for Stella to start giving up her Binky -- but it was clear she wasn't going to do it on her own anytime soon. In fact, her love affair was only continuing to grow stronger. So, we started a gradual weaning process by limiting pacifier use to sleeping. That was the easy part. What really scared me was the prospect of getting her to sleep without the thing. I was terrified it would keep the rest of us from getting any shut-eye.

    Unfortunately, stories from other moms didn't offer much comfort for that fear. According to Gutierrez, "Jordan went through what seemed like the withdrawal of a crack fiend. She screamed like the devil incarnate for four hours the first night -- and it was two weeks before she could fall asleep without crying." On the flip side, Jordan's 15-month-old brother, who gave up his pacifier at the same time, went completely cold turkey without even flinching.

    Yes, every child is unique and you know yours better than anyone, but experts agree that the earlier you boot the Binky the easier the goodbye process will be. "The older kids get, the more attached they are, the more aware they are, and the more able they are to torture us when we make them uncomfortable by taking a pacifier away," says Alkazian.

    Worries about late-night tears aside, I was comforted to know that when I did muster the courage to say sayonara to Binky, there would be plenty of humane ways to do it. There's the always-popular Binky Fairy, who comes at night to take all of a child's pacifiers and pass them along to other babies, leaving the big kid a gift. There's the possibility of bringing your little addict to a toy store to "trade" his suckers for a big-kid toy. And for a more picturesque parting, families can even opt to release pacifiers into the sky, tied to colorful helium balloons, or (an eco-friendlier option) to hang them over the branches of a "Binky tree" where they can dance in the breeze alongside their brethren.

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    Booting the Binky

    In the end, with my own daughter, it took a special visit from the Pacifier Fairy. When Stella was about 2?, we began talking about the wonderful day, soon to come, when the Pacifier Fairy would arrive. After a few weeks, she received a letter from the fairy, announcing that she'd be doing a flyby that night and instructing Stella to bundle her Binkies and leave them by her bedroom door. The next morning, there was a cuddly gift and a congratulatory note waiting in their place.

    How did it all go over? Well, we did have a few rough nights -- but nothing as brutal as I had feared. In fact, her favorite game is to smile and say, "Mommy, I want a pacifier!" (I slap my thigh and laugh like it's the funniest joke I've ever heard; she just loves that.) So, it turns out life without the handy little thing is possible. But I have to admit: When I pass a toddler sucking contentedly on her Binky, I sometimes feel a pang of longing -- as though I was the one who was hooked.

    Tales That Teach

    Help your little one bid the Binky adieu with these sweet stories.

    Good-bye Pacifier! By Patricia Geis - This graphic board book follows little Tula as she realizes she's ready to let go of her beloved pacifier.

    No More Pacifier for Piggy! By Bernette Ford - Piggy wants to play peekaboo, but his Binky is getting in the way. Will he pass on the pacifier or forgo the fun?

    Caillou: Rosie's Pacifier By Christine L'Heureux - Rosie is starting to speak and quickly discovers it's much easier without her pacifier in her mouth.

    Pacifiers are Not Forever By Elizabeth Verdick - In addition to offering weaning encouragement for kids, this book includes advice for parents.

    Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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