Reader’s Question: Some thoughts about the best ages to wean off pacifiers

Hi there. I'm back. And really happy to let you know that I'm sticking around for the long haul. I've got some new developments to this blog I want to tell you all about. Much of it has to do with your feedback and some extra-fun ideas I've been thinking through when I finally decided to re-commit myself to this blog. That will be a separate post though. For now, let's get to a simple question about pacifiers, one that has been emailed to me in various similar forms in the last few weeks. 

I would be interested in your take on weaning from pacifiers, if
there's a time that developmentally more appropriate than another. 
Maggie actually has a cold right now, and I thought she might be using
them less b/c she is so stuffed up, but nope, it's still in her mouth
in the night!… Maggie will be 11 months on Tuesday, if that helps your analysis.

As you might guess by now, yes, knowing your child's age will ALWAYS help the analysis, in my opinion. Some of the emails I got about soothers and the challenges they posed were from parents of young babies, others from older kids (I'll get to the older age soon). So, Maggie is at the tail-end of a doozy of a stage transition. So, any plans on weaning off ANYTHING — breast, bottle, or pacifier — I would hold off on for another month, until things start to settle a bit developmentally. Just like any big change that requires altering some fundamental way that the child self-soothes, making these changes during transition periods will be much harder than waiting for a more stable window. But there are different considerations you can take into account at different ages. So… 12 months might be a great age to wean off pacifiers if your child actually CAN fall asleep without them. It will probably require some systematic "sleep training" method, because most kids get VERY attached to their soothers. But it can work quite well at 12 months. And at this age, you are less likely to have to worry about any damage to the teeth that might have occurred. There's also the option of "partial weaning" if your child takes the pacifier throughout the day to soothe. You can make the pacifier available ONLY for sleeping — keep it / them in the crib and only let the child use it for naptimes and bedtimes. This might cut down on potential damage to teeth and also minimize some of the other problems that some parents have with children who use pacifiers constantly (difficulty with speech production, difficulty being understood, reliance on pacis as the only soothing method during stressful periods, etc.). 

The next window of opportunity might be around 24-30 months, but that might be a tougher age because the child at that age has a greater capacity to remember objects and rituals. As a result, their attachment to their pacifiers (and teddies, lovies, etc.), may be much greater and may take more convincing to work out. 

Another window of opportunity comes up around the 3 – 3.5 year old period. Of course, at this age children are VERY aware of what objects of comfort mean to them and they have a brilliant capacity to keep things in mind for a VERY LONG TIME (just think about the perseverating a 3-year old can do when she really, really, really wants that particular toy at the store, or that particular type of food at dinnertime). BUT!  What's glorious at this age is the child's capacity to understand rules and to groove with the idea that they're part of a family with mini-rituals (or scripts, as some call it). So… you can take advantage of that more sophisticated way of understanding the world and "make up" a new rule, or ritual (I prefer that phrasing than outright "lie to your kid"). At age 2, kids are not likely to understand or care much about a "soother fairy" or about the world-recognized rite of passage: "the great soother pass-down" (whatever… I just made that name up, obviously, but it IS well-known). But at THREE?!  Oh, they can really get into it. So, many a wise mama has explained to her child that when he turns 3, he will be a BIG BOY. And when he's a BIG BOY, he will no longer need his soother/pacifier/binky. Because of course, pacifiers are for small babies and so, it is commonly known across many lands far and wide that when a child turns three, he gives his pacifiers to his mother, who will dutifully place them in the VERY IMPORTANT ENVELOPE that will then be sent to ALL THE BABIES around the world who need the pacifiers when they're crying. Many parents take some variation of this type of story and tell it to their child. And it works. It seems MAGICAL, that's how easily it works for some kids.

Confession: Our kids gave up their pacifiers at 3 years old EXACTLY (no, I'm not obsessive about age at all). Here's the sad, momentous day, captured digitally. No, I do not put this picture up to dazzle you with my keen fashion sense of evening-wear. I just felt like proving to all of you going through this "late weaning" process that I really DO get how hard it can be. I was there a mere 6 months ago and it went FINE. I would never have believed that this silly little "give the babies your soothers" tale would work, but they got totally into it and, after 3 days of some mild pleading for the babies to give BACK their soothers, the 3-year habit (that was supposed to be so evil and was never, ever, ever going to be able to be broken because we were so, so permissive) was over. I was shocked.No paci Ruby

But again, it only works for kids who are at an age when these rituals can be made meaningful and when they are motivated to comply with rules. I think that golden age for this type of strategy really is around 3 – 3.5 years old. Because then the mighty next stage transition sets in… 3.5 years old. This is when they CAN and DO understand roles, rules and rituals, but shame and self-consciousness may have come online with a vengeance. Giving up a pacifier "to not be a baby" may carry on a whole lot more meaning than any parent wants to provide at that next developmental transition.

How did YOU get your child to give up his/her pacifier? Was it easy or hard; a bigger or smaller deal than you thought it would be? And how much do you think the whole thing has to do with where you're raising your kid(s)? I know that some of the pacifier hoopla is very culturally-determined — in some countries, my kids would have been considered brilliant for having only had their soothers at bedtimes and "only" until age 3; in other countries, the judgy-mcJudges would have thought I was NUTS to let my kids use soothers for so long.

10 thoughts on “Reader’s Question: Some thoughts about the best ages to wean off pacifiers

  1. For Son #1 at about a year’s time we started limiting the pacifies to bedtimes or periods of high stress (for baby or parents) but in general we were really limiting it. We waffled back and forth on the whole paci issue but our son had a strong need to suck and so we kept it. We went overseas when he was a little over 2 and waited until we got back to remove the paci. We weaned him off when he was 30 months which from a developmental point of view may not have been so great but it went fairly easily. We cut the ends of the paci a little bit until he got used to falling asleep without sucking and then eventually one day the paci’s were sent to Diego for all the baby animals. And in place “Diego” sent him a present. And that was that. So when he remembered the paci we would just remind him and about a month later he stopped remembering them.
    Son #2 never really loved the paci. He would take it but he would play with it more. At around 6 months he got a cold and would not take it at all and so we just got rid of them then. Once the cold was over there was a day or 2 where we wanted to give it to him and i think we gave it to him but it wasn’t helping soothe him and so we that was that.

  2. What about thumb sucking, or in my 4.5 year old’s case, arm sucking? Is there a magical age where I will have more luck in convincing him to give it up? He gnaws at it mainly when tired and to put himself to sleep but has been known to suck/chew on it when relaxing ( in front of the tv) or out and about. His ped is less concerned than his grandma about the sucking and I agree with the ped that he is simply not ready yet to give it up, but those bruises are pretty noticeable ( it looks like someone has tied the poor child up!)and as a result receive lots of comments from people who don’t know he is an arm sucker.

  3. Thanks for the post!
    I was pregnant with baby #2 when my daughter was 27 months, so the 24-30 month window didn’t work for removing the paci because that was prime baby transition period. Also, she used her paci when teething and I didn’t want to take it from her until her 2 year molars were in.
    DD doesn’t use her paci at daycare (not even for naps) but there has definitely been a resurgence of use since her brother arrived. And she’s really focused on HIS pacifier’s, too.
    My hesitation to wean her is two fold. 1 – When she doesn’t have it, she tends to suck on her fingers or her thumb, which we can’t take away from her. 2 – Having a baby brother with a pacifier (although he doesn’t use it nearly as much as she did), just seems like a constant reminder of what she’s missing.
    Personally, I’m hoping that we can get rid of my son’s pacifier before his birthday and then wean my daughter during that 3 to 3 1/2 year window.
    I know that someday she’ll be sleeping in a big bed without her pacifier and be potty trained…but those three hurdles seem so BIG right now. Especially knowing all of the growing and changing that my 4 month old son is going to be doing in the next year!

  4. Very interesting point. We never did use a soother, not out of principle but because my daughter would puke every time we put one in her mouth – meant that I got to be the soother instead, lucky me!
    Here’s my question, though. Developmental leaps can cover a range of months, depending on the child. How do you know when your child is out of the woods? it seems like my daughter is always either cooking some new skill or teething or ill. I don’t know that we’ve really had a settled period at all since she was 14 months or so, and she’s 20 months now! But it’s really hard to tell if the unsettled is “developmental” or “other” at the moment.

  5. My daughter gave up the pacifier around 5 months of age. That was when I finally got sick of getting up in the middle of the night to put it back in her mouth. She was down to only one feeding around 3-4 am at that point and my husband and I decided to try CIO. That night she went to bed at the normal time, around 8 or 9 pm, and cried for 45 min. We were able to turn off the monitor and turn on the TV so we could hear her but the noise was drowned out by something on TV. Later that night we had another stretch of maybe 15 LONG minutes of crying. And after that a couple short (less than 5 min) for a few nights. I kept the normal 3-4 am feeding and she went back to sleep fine without the pacifier. And it was over! No more pacifiers. Around the same time, we started giving her a lovey to sleep with. Now that monkey is her sign of bedtime/naptime and she loves it. So I guess we replaced the pacifier with a lovey.

  6. @loz
    If you are interested in another mum’s perspective, my daughter ( now 32 months) was the same as yours in her second year of life. It was even rougher than the first year for us as the sleep training had worn off and we could never find a moment, like you, where she seemed relaxed and easy going enough to do a reminder session. 20 monhts to 24 were the worst for us ( sorry, not wanting to scare you), but just after her 2nd birthday ( like three days or so) she suddenly calmed down. The sign that she was ‘out of the woods’ in our case, was that she stopped her little night visits and actually slept thru two nights in a row, 13 hours. Sleeping thru has always been ‘the’ sign for us. And then when the night wakings and night visits start up again, she’s back in the woods again. Like right now.

  7. @ Erika
    Your post is an encouragement for me. My son is 5 months old and I have to get up multiple times through the night to put it back in. He is still swaddled because otherwise he would just knock it out and I know that once I unswaddle him (or he unswaddles himself) it is going to be impossible. So I am planning on weaning from the soother at 6 and a half months after our company is gone and his 6 month vaccinations are over. I would LOVE for him to be able to keep it, but I would LOVE for him to be able to sleep all night even more! When my daughter was 4 months old (not a great age for sleep training, I know, but I didn’t know better then) we took hers away because we were up 10-12 times a night. By the second night she was sleeping through without more than a wimper. Since then she has been a champion sleeper without ever a regression, and she is coming 6. I hope it goes as well this time! PS Are they old enough for a lovey yet? My girls didn’t take one until they were closer to a year.

  8. @z: the Diego variation is a very cute one. I had heard about “soother fairies” and such, but this is a nice twist…
    @paola: the sucking thing is a tough one. I agree with your ped, when he’s ready, he’ll give it up. And I wouldn’t push it too hard if it’s really soothing him and not doing much damage (although OUCH… bruising seems like it WOULD hurt). A lot of kids around the 5 – 6 year old range give up thumb-sucking or other stuff that seems to be “strange” to the “big boys” at school and such. There’s a huge burst in “meta-cognition” at around 5 and that also helps. They often drop it on their own from subtle “peer pressure” from their classmates or just looking at what others are doing or not doing. (And PLEASE keep giving your mom’s perspective. It’s INVALUABLE!)
    @Amy M: Your plan sounds like a very good one. YOu’re being sensitive to both your kids’ needs and your oldest is clearly wanting some of that “baby action” that his little sibling is gettin. The soother is a VERY common habit older kids pick up when a new baby comes around (even when the older one never took a soother before).
    @loz: to add to what paola said, you can take sleep disruptions (or lack thereof) as one indication of being out of a sensitive window. But you can also use some of the markers that I’ve mentioned in each of the sensitive windows categories (listed on the right part of the blog). So, for example, you’ll know that your child is mainly out of the 8-11 month phase when separations become less stressful, when she really understands object permanence for a while (you can even do the fun little test on her), when strangers don’t seem as frightening, etc. Each stage has a few indicators that they’re acquiring new skills and once those are strongly consolidated, you can start feeling reassured that you child is almost through the stage transition. Make sense?
    @Theresa: I think your child’s old enough for a lovey, as long as it’s one of those newborn ones (it’s not too long to go around the neck, doesn’t have long straps, etc.). They sell those ones with little satiny heads of animals with these cape-y/blanket-y things attached that are close to what you might be looking for. Alternatively, my kids always slept with a knitted blanket that had lots of little holes in it. Worked like a charm… And good luck with the de-swaddling and de-soothering!

  9. Tonight my 3 year old (turned 3 two days ago…)Cried and wept so long and hard for her soother that I felt like a terrible mother. She wont nap without it or fall asleep. Tonight she cried herself to sleep. I layed with her and held her. I did not give in,however her little baby sister has soothers and she takes them. She is starting pre school next week and I dont want her to need a soother at nap time. HELP I feel so bad for doing this to her but I know her teeth will be awful…she already has a bit of an overbit.

  10. @miranda: Oh that sounds SO hard! I completely understand the guilt. All I can offer is A LOT of sympathy and a few commiserating thoughts. My kids weren’t thrilled with the idea once they realized that their soothers were REALLY gone to the “babies.” Although the cover story I used helped them adjust a bit, I think, they DID ask for them back and looked terribly distressed when I said no. And they took at least twice as long to fall asleep, which made me feel awful that I was taking away the one thing they’ve had since birth that calmed them down and made them feel relaxed and good before bed. BUT! The one thought that kept me going is that this is probably only one of 10 MILLION things we’re going to have to do as parents that they WON’T like, they’ll protest madly about, but in the end, it IS for their own good. They will want 10 cookies instead of 1, they’ll want to avoid brushing their teeth, they’ll want to watch 4 hours of t.v., they’ll want to not wear their helmet, etc. It’s our job to make the tough decisions for them and to bear not being liked very much at times. My kids also were starting to get overbites, their dentist was not pleased with me, and I knew eventually I’d have to do something. So, it might help with the guilt if you realize that you ARE being an AWESOME mother for doing something that is SO, SO hard for YOU. It would be MUCH easier to give in, but you’re doing this for HER and you’re being incredibly strong for her, being with her through this transition. She WILL recover. She WILL learn to calm herself before going to sleep. And preschool will help with that because she’ll be able to look around at the other kids and see that most aren’t using soothers. It’s always hardest the first 3 days or so of a transition and often things get worst before they get better. Sorry I don’t have any magic answers, though…

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