NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
THE PACIFIER PROBLEM
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. My almost 4-year-old refuses to give up her pacifier and I am concerned about her teeth. Since her sister was born 10 months ago, she seems to be using it much more. Do you recommend we get rid of it cold-turkey as some pediatricians have recommended? Will the pacifier cause long-term damage to her palate and/or teeth?
A. Some studies associate pacifier use with orthodontic problems, especially as children get older. Such findings don’t mean that any child who uses a pacifier will need orthodontic treatment, but treatment appears to be necessary more often with pacifier use.
We know of no studies that link cold-turkey termination of the pacifier with significant psychological problems later. Concerns arise from the notion that interfering with a young child’s need for oral soothing may lead to overeating and other problems.
The practical challenge in stopping pacifier use is that there’s no sure way to do it. Often, when a parent tries, the child just clings harder to the pacifier.
You mention that a baby sister came along 10 months ago.
Children often suck their thumbs, fingers or pacifiers to reduce stress. They’re bound to feel more anxious when the whole family is.
When a new baby is brought home, parents are understandably preoccupied, worn out and less available to the older child. She may wonder why her parents had to go to all that trouble for this crying, demanding, inert little creature who won’t be much fun for a long time. The question may vaguely cross her mind, “Is the new baby here because I wasn’t enough to satisfy them?”
As she tries to adapt to her new role of older sister, and learns to wait until her parents have time for her, she’s likely to feel upset. As the baby grows, there will be new challenges for the older child – when the baby says her first words, or begins to crawl or walk and get into all of the older child’s toys. A thumb, finger or pacifier can be a welcome refuge.
It may help to offer this child other strategies for soothing herself – a “lovey” such as a soft blanket to stroke and cuddle, or a stuffed animal to squeeze tight. There’s no need for lots of dolls and animals – too many will just distract her. Instead, she’ll need to become attached to a single special one. Hand it to her when she’s distressed, tired or has scraped an elbow or knee, and tell her to hug it hard to help her feel better.
After a new baby is born, the older child feels the need to be a baby, too. The baby just seems to suck up all the time and get all the parents’ attention – so why wouldn’t an older child try the same thing?
Parents often think they can help the older child adjust by praising her for being such a “good big sister.” But the older child also needs reassurance that she can be a baby again when she needs to. The more her need to regress is openly expressed and accepted, the less she’s likely to do so.
Family life is especially busy with a 10-month-old, but the older child might need some extra time to cuddle with you. Don’t say a word about it, and don’t make it an issue, but try to give her some gentle one-on-one time when she doesn’t have her pacifier. Thus she’ll learn – through actions rather than words – that there are even more rewarding places for her to find the comfort she seeks.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Prior to Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.