Letters from Maine

Preemptive pacifier promotion


I recently encountered an article aimed at parents who were struggling with what to do about their child’s persistent attachment to his pacifier (“How to Ditch the Pacifier,” by Anna Nowogrodski, New York Times, 2019 Sept. 16). For the most part, the author presented a sampling of sound advice from pediatricians and other health experts.

baby laying in crib looking agitated Travis Manley/Thinkstock

Most children will abandon their pacifiers at a time that is consistent with their developmental stage. Pacifiers seldom do any permanent damage, although they aren’t terribly appealing to look at when hanging out of a toddling toddler’s mouth. Parents were urged to be patient and consistent and were told that allowing the gooey thing to self-destruct often works, as does accelerating the process with a razor blade. Enlisting the aid of the Pacifier Fairy was suggested, but I’m not so sure that would work terribly well.

As I finished perusing the article, I couldn’t help think of how this vexing issue of pacifier removal can be avoided if parents follow a simple rule when they first introduced a pacifier to their child. If experienced parents think back to when they first resorted to using the pacifier, it wasn’t because the plastic and rubber gadget was a family heirloom that had been passed down from generation to generation like an engraved silver spoon. It wasn’t because the dentist told them that children who use pacifiers are less likely to need braces on their teeth. Nor was it a rumor filtered down from speech therapists that pacifiers improve articulation.

Parents reach for a pacifier in hopes that it will help their child will fall asleep. I think most parents of older children agree that at the beginning the pacifier was first and foremost a sleep aid. But here is where the critical oversight occurs: If you give your children pacifiers when you want them to go to sleep, why not simply add the stipulation of where you would like them to go to sleep as well?

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Most parents prefer that their children sleep in their own space. We can argue of whether that should be in a side sleeper or their own crib, but most parents don’t want their 3-year-olds sleeping in their bed. Nor do they want their children sleeping on the couch in the living room with them while they watch a movie at 10:30 at night. And as pediatricians, we prefer that children not sleep with their necks flexed in a car seat or baby rocker, particularly if they’re a preemie.

So why not adopt the simple family rule that the child can use a pacifier whenever it seems needed, but only in bed? Augmenting the primary association between sleep and the pacifier by adding a place has several important advantages. It gives parents more control of where their children will sleep or, more importantly, where they won’t be sleeping. It helps transitions to nonhome sleeping places like day care and long trips to grandma’s house go more smoothly.

Even more importantly, the crib/pacifier association helps parents who have had trouble reading their children’s cues. If they want a pacifier, it means they are tired and want to go to where the pacifier lives: bed

Finally, maintaining the link between sleeping and the pacifier promotes a more natural weaning process than going cold turkey or hiring the Pacifier Fairy. As naps disappear, the pacifier gradually become a less obvious accessory in the child’s life. However, it may linger in the background as a reminder of when the child needs some restorative sleep.

Of course, helping parents to think clearly enough to create and enforce a simple rule long enough to forge a healthy association when they are sleep deprived themselves is just another one of those challenges we must accept as concerned primary care pediatricians.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Is My Child Overtired? The Sleep Solution for Raising Happier, Healthier Children.” Email him at [email protected].

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