Pacifiers and Thumbs: Tips on when and how to wean

    You may have wondered when your toddler will be ready to be weaned from his pacifier. Or you may be slightly more panicky, like me, fearing my 6-year-old daughter will never stop sucking her thumb at bedtime. In either case, you might like to know some facts. 
    First of all, it is important to know that sucking on fingers and other objects is completely normal for babies and young children. It has a soothing effect on them. Most children who suck on their thumb or a pacifier are able to put themselves to sleep more easily, a skill welcome to most parents and an important step in baby’s development.

Pacifier or Thumb? 
    If you’re a new parent, you might ask yourself whether to introduce a pacifier to your baby. “I’d always go for the pacifier,” says Lori Glaser of Overland Park, whose eight children range from 3 months to 11 years of age. “Only one of our kids sucked her thumb, and it was a pain to end her habit. With the five who used pacifiers, it was easy to take them away.” Lauren Goldman, another local mom, would have gladly gone for thumb or pacifier, but her kids, ages 3 ½ and 1, chose neither. “My kids are not the best sleepers, so I really wish they had learned to soothe themselves,” she says. Other mothers swear by the thumb – it is free, easy to use and always safe. Its use also does not disrupt breastfeeding or increase the risk of ear infections, nor does it hamper speech development, dangers some experts attribute to pacifiers. It seems thumbs only have one major drawback - they cannot be taken away.

Reasons for Weaning 
    So why take anything so soothing away? According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), prolonged thumb sucking can create crooked teeth or bite problems. The good news is that most children stop their sucking habit on their own between 2 and 4 years of age, well before dental issues might emerge. Dr. Scott Dattel, a pediatrician with Kansas City Pediatrics, says he rarely sees dental problems as a result of thumb sucking or pacifier use. In his experience, a powerful argument for weaning is that “parents often perceive thumb sucking or pacifier use as a social stigma rather than a medical condition.”
Eventually, for whatever reason, most parents want their children weaned from their sucking habit.

The Ideal Time to Wean 
    Pacifier weaning tends to occur relatively early, between the ages of one and three, probably just because we can. Dattel recommends age two, when the child is old enough to participate in the decision to let the pacifier go. In the Glaser family, the magic age was one, when their kids were “young enough to forget quickly but old enough to find other ways to soothe themselves.” Be careful though – weaning too early may be counterproductive. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cautions against premature efforts that might increase your child’s insecurity and thereby reinforce their habit. Dr. Heidi Harman of Harman Orthodontics in Olathe agrees. “I hate to make a big issue of it at an early age,” she says, “because then they don’t want to cooperate when you really need to work with them.” Because weaning from the thumb is more challenging, Harman recommends not interfering until the onset of permanent teeth, and even then only in cases of severe and sustained sucking habits.

Keep it Positive 
    Whenever you begin weaning your child, remember to keep it positive. Harsh words, teasing or punishment are not only stressful to your child, they are almost certain to backfire. Instead, prevent excessive sucking early. Limiting pacifiers to the crib is a good idea, as is distracting your child with interesting activities so he forgets to suck his thumb.

Pacifier weaning tricks that worked for other moms: 

  • Cut a hole in it so it is “broken” 
  • Leave a blanky or soft toy in his crib early to give comfort after the pacifier is gone 
  • Help your child set a date, such as her 3rd birthday, to give it up 
  • Enlist the “Pacie Fairy” 
  • “Lose” it 
  • Help your child find a “sad baby” to donate it to 
  • Trade it for a coveted new toy 
  • Read a children’s book like “The Binky Ba-ba Fairy” together

Ideas to wean from thumb sucking: 

  • Solicit advice from an expert, such as your doctor or dentist 
  • Create a sticker chart with rewards for “thumb-free” time 
  • Buy a pair of new “night time” gloves 
  • Help your child make a fancy sock puppet to wear at night 
  • Issue gentle reminders when your child is sucking his thumb 
  • Talk to your dentist about an orthodontic mouth guard 
  • Cover your child’s thumb with a bitter but harmless solution, such as Thum

    Getting your child’s buy-in is your best chance for success. You’ll be amazed how much just talking to him will accomplish. “It is important that the child may come to understand it was them and not their parents who decided to end their habit,” says Dattel. 
    As for my family, showing our daughter an orthodontist’s brochure with pictures of bites deformed by severe and prolonged sucking habits did the trick. She took one long look, and that night informed us that she would keep her thumb out of her mouth. It hasn’t gone back in ever since.

Thumbsucking mom tips 
    "Discuss how big they are getting and set a date (about a week ahead) that she will be old enough to stop sucking her thumb. Count down the days by marking them off on a calendar. Distract them with playing, books, something else that is good for them." ~ Lisa, KCMO 

    "We let our daughter choose when she was ready to stop sucking her thumb. She had difficulty keeping her thumb out of her mouth while she was sleeping so we would put band-aids on her thumb before bed and it did the trick!" ~ Cecilia, Liberty

Pacifier Tips 
    "We put the pacifier under her pillow and told her the pacifier fairy would give her goodies in exchange for her worked!" ~ Lynn, Shawnee 

    "Do it gradually. We limited use of the pacifier first to just the house, then to specific rooms, then not at all. It worked." ~ Barbara, Leawood

Eva Melusine Thieme lives in Overland Park with her husband and four children.

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