The Pacifier: Sleep Magic or Sleep Disturber
The wonderful and dreaded pacifier! I have been lucky, or maybe lazy, and my children have all liked the ones given to us by the hospital and I have literally never bought one. However, I have heard other moms swear by a certain brand. I asked on my Instagram and Facebook page and the overwhelming response was clearly the MAM pacifier. If you are in search of a good pacifier start with the MAM.
There is a lot of information on the binky. Today, I will share when the pacifier can be helpful, when it starts to hurt sleep, and how to ditch the binky, and all the exceptions in between.
First, for a newborn (0-16 weeks) the paci is a must. Not all babies will take one, but if your newborn will, I highly recommend it. Newborns use sucking as their main means to soothe, which means the binky could be a huge help to getting your newborn to sleep and staying asleep and well rested. Plus, it decreases the chance of SIDS. And if your baby is taking a binky he may be less likely to need to nurse to sleep or need to eat during the night because he may just want to suck as opposed to eat. Any way you slice it, the pacifier comes out on top in the beginning. It’s a win win win! After about 16 weeks, the relationship with the binky can begin to change.
The binky can turn into a problem after 16 weeks, when your baby needs the same conditions at the beginning of the night to fall asleep as he needs in the middle of the night to be able to go back to sleep independently. You see, babies wake frequently at night. In fact, we all do. But as adults we tend to just roll over and go back to sleep. It happens so quickly that we may not even realize we have woken and fallen back to sleep. But if your baby needs to find a binky to get back to sleep it is unlikely that the sleep cycle transition will happen quite as smoothly. Your baby is much more likely to wake fully during a sleep cycle transition instead of just quickly falling back to sleep. This could happen once a night, or ten times a night. Another one of the most common sleep issues I see with the binky is early morning wake ups. Early morning sleep is the lightest sleep and when a child needs a binky to fall and stay asleep it is common for the morning wake up to get earlier and earlier as the child has to wake up just enough to find and insert their binky.
Babies in the four to seven or eight months age range are going to struggle to manipulate (let alone find) their binky on their own in the middle of the night. Which results in the parents running into the room 5 to 5 million times every night to stick that binky in their baby’s mouth.
I have also had babies who are using the binky to fall asleep but then wake wanting to be nursed and therefore refuse the binky in the middle of the night. This may or may not have been my twins. It’s interesting to note, that once we got rid of the binky those same babies stopped waking to nurse at night. Since most parents sleep train around this time, it is most common to just ditch the binky while sleep training and is what I recommend to almost all of my clients.
Occasionally you will find a baby who is using the binky to fall asleep at night, and is unphased by it. This baby won’t need it reinserted by the parents all night long, and night feedings will even stay low or non-existent. If this is your baby, great! Keep doing what you are doing. It’s working. However, these parents are not usually the parents coming to me for help. In my experience the binky causes sleep issues because that is what I see.
The argument can be made that if your baby or toddler can manipulate and find the binky then it must not be the cause of any sleep disturbances. Occasionally this is true. We make sure the child has their binky, and can find their binky without the parents help and sometimes the child will sleep just fine. In these cases, I also recommend trying to introduce another comfort item, that is age appropriate and safe. This will help your child attach to more than just the binky, since the binky will not be around forever. A small stuffed animal or cozy blanket works great for this.
Unfortunately, not all children will be able to keep the binky even when they can manipulate it. Sometimes even when a child can find the binky it can still cause the child to wake more fully than if they didn’t need it at all. And that waking can be enough to cause full blown middle of the night wakings, leading to feedings, or perhaps an extra early start to your, or other sleep disturbances.
Bottom line: If your baby or toddler is using a binky and isn’t struggling with sleep you are likely just fine to keep the binky, at least until he begins to struggle. And if your baby or toddler is struggling to sleep and has a paci, it might be time to reconsider whether it is actually helping. When I work with my clients, if the binky is present and sleep sucks, we almost always remove that binky first thing.
A word of warning to anyone who has a two-year-old with a binky: I have heard one too many horror stories of a two-year-old stopping naps once that binky was gone. You’ve made it this far with binky, what’s another year? I would much rather have a two-year-old with a binky who naps, than a two-year-old refusing to nap. You might consider trying to ditch the binky at night and keeping it for naps until at least age three. But my preference at this point, would be to just keep it till three or until your child is ready to stop napping.
I also hear from so many parents that are scared to take the binky away because they are worried their child will suck their thumb and ruin their teeth. And as I am frequently told, “You can’t take fingers away.” Hey, I get it. Us parents like to be in control. And this is a great example of a time when try as we may, we really don’t get to ‘control’ what our child does. If your child is going to be a thumb sucker it probably has little to do with you and what you do or don’t do. Some children just suck their thumb. But I also bet those children are the best sleepers. I know my thumb sucker is. As I’ve research and learned as much as I can about thumb sucking and how it effects teeth I’ve learned that a big piece of whether it will hurt their teeth is how vigorously the child sucks not whether they suck or not. Interesting right?! As a mom with a thumb sucker, my plan is to appreciate the sleep now, helping her to feel secure, developing healthy attachment, and help her process emotions while practicing self-soothing so she will be ready to stop sucking on her terms or even with some help from me if it appears that she needs some pushing because her teeth are suffering. Stay connected with your dentist and discuss how often and strongly your child sucks and come up with an appropriate plan. But through it all, I am a strong believer that the child gets to be in control of the process!
Now that I have convinced you to ditch the binky (hopefully), how do you do this? Well first of all, I hate to break it to you, but there is no real slow and gradual way to take it away. I have heard lots of ideas from slowly decreasing the amount of time your baby sucks the binky and then removing it right before he falls asleep for our younger babies to cutting the tip or tying it to the door handle for our toddlers.
You can do any of these, but again, the bottom line: at one point he has it and the next he doesn’t. There is no slow way around that. Instead I would focus on having a good bedtime routine with lots of strong sleep cues. Then work to get your baby as well rested as possible. The better rested the easier the transition. Get on a good schedule and know how much sleep your baby needs. This step is often overlooked, but having a well-rested baby is probably the most important part. Then once you are committed, I would follow your routine and just skip giving your little dreamer the binky. Make sure to put your baby in bed happy, awake, and alert before becoming overly tired, fussy, or cranky. If everything falls into place your baby won’t even miss it and will start sleeping better right away!
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