Should our toddler have a pacifier?

Our toddler Kevin is really attached to his pacifier, and I mean really.  He calls it “ad” and I swear that was his first word.  He wants it when he goes to sleep and for his nap, which is fine with us (he’s actually a great sleeper) but he also wants it the minute he finishes lunch, as soon as we walk in the door, whenever he’s bored, and of course when he’s upset. The only time he doesn’t use it is when he’s at daycare (except for nap) and that doesn’t seem to be a problem. We are at a loss of what to do, or whether we need to do anything at all (we’ve been given dire warnings about his teeth by grandparents and other “concerned” family members.  What should we do?

Pacifiers are a huge source of comfort to many babies, especially when they are at the stage when their sucking needs are strong.  As babies get older, many will transition to sucking on a thumb or hand, but some get attached to the pacifier itself, often using it as a “lovey”--a source of comfort that reminds them of being a baby.  Sensitive babies who are intense and who tend to get upset easily get a lot of comfort from the rhythm and feel of sucking on a pacifier. It’s understandable when parents who have to care for these challenging babies offer the pacifier quickly to help restore calm. Some babies become more and more dependent on pacifiers as they get older, and some, like Kevin, start to demand the pacifier even before they get upset!

That’s because once a toddler learns to associate sucking on his pacifier with getting comfort and pleasure, he may not know any other way to get the same nice feelings.  Since parents habitually offer the pacifier as a way of helping an unhappy toddler to calm down, a child feels that the pacifier, the parent, the comfort, and the sucking are all parts of what he needs to have when he is sad.           

Let’s face it, if your child uses a pacifier, there are probably many times when you are glad he does.  As you’ve seen, sucking on a pacifier helps Kevin to recover from frustration or fall asleep at night much more easily than if he had to do it on his own.  

However, as you’ve discovered, when a toddler becomes overly dependent on a pacifier you face other challenges.  Some one year olds want a pacifier every time they get upset.  For one child, that might mean just a few times a day.  However, a sensitive toddler might demand a pacifier every time he gets even slightly frustrated or angry.  Since frustration and anger are common feelings for toddlers to have, some one year olds may become more and more dependent on the pacifier instead of learning other ways to deal with being distressed.

Another disadvantage of pacifier use for a toddler is that he can’t talk when it’s in his mouth.  The pacifier actually discourages speech since it falls out if the child tries to talk. If he tries to hold the pacifier in, it is hard for others to understand him, adding to his frustrationSince a toddler develops his language skills by exchanging words with the people around him, it's easy to see that a child who has difficulty speaking or getting responses from others might be delayed in learning to communicate.                       

Fortunately, you don’t have to worry that Kevin’s use of the pacifier will damage his developing jaw or teeth.  Although frequent sucking on a pacifier or a thumb can contribute to dental problems after age four, a toddler who uses a pacifier is not at greater risk for problems than the toddler who does not.

In order to decide whether Kevin’s use of a pacifier is a problem, you’ll have to ask yourselves whether you need the pacifier as much as he does.  It's helpful to think abouthow you see your role in helping your child learn to manage unhappiness. Sometimes parents have so much difficulty listening to their child cry that they rush to "plug him up" whenever he needs comfort.   If a child begins to feel that his crying is making her parents upset, he may start to believe that a pacifier or other object is a more reliable source of comfort than they are.  In the long run, even though you may bring your child instant relief by handing him his pacifier, it’s better for Kevin to see that his parents are strong enough to stay calm even if he is out of control.

If you feel as though you would like to decrease or eliminate Kevin's use of a pacifier, you can begin by limiting the times when he is allowed to have it. Since he can get along without it in daycare, you can be sure he’s capable of handling frustration in other ways. Many parents find that it is relatively easy to begin by telling a child that from now on the pacifier stays at home.  A next step, if you want to go further, can be limiting use of the pacifier to nap time and bedtime.  (Some parents tell a toddler that he must keep the pacifier in his bed.  This technique may work, but some resourceful toddlers will start going to bed every time they want the pacifier!)  The final step would be to telling your child that she is not going to be able to use a pacifier anymore, and taking the pacifier away for good.  Any of these steps should only be taken at a time when life is going smoothly for your child and your family, so that he is not under any extra stress that would be making him especially needy of his usual comfort.

Most parents find that once they feel comfortable with the decision to lessen their toddler’s use of the pacifier, their child adapts after a few days.  If a child was primarily dependent on the pacifier for comfort, he will usually find another object to hold or snuggle if he needs one.  If he was using the pacifier to satisfy his sucking needs as well, she may switch to sucking her fingers or her thumb.  That can be another challenge, of course, but if Kevin has not been sucking on his thumb at daycare he probably won’t start now.

Whatever you decide, your rules for Kevin’s pacifier should be based on both his need and the practical aspects of allowing or restricting its use.  It’s unlikely that Kevin will ever give up his pacifier without your help, but there’s no evidence his habit will be damaging to his physical or emotional development.