The very thought of taking a pacifier away from a baby can induce anxiety and fear in parents everywhere. Unfortunately, there is no one magic way to go about pacifier weaning; every baby is different and what works for one may not work for another. Many parents anticipate increased crying and less sleep when they take a pacifier away from their baby. And while this may be the case, it is not always, and it is only temporary.
Babies use pacifiers to self-soothe, and in their infancy this is beneficial for them and their parents. Many people are surprised to learn this, but babies begin to develop the ability to self-soothe around 4 to 6 months old. Understanding that there are many battles to wage during this age and that you must pick your battles, it is not always the best -- or easiest -- time to take a pacifier away from your baby. However, this age is also when habits develop, so if you can wean them at that age -- before habits develop -- it can be beneficial.
Many parents begin thinking about pacifier weaning as their baby's 1st birthday approaches. This is ideal because babies are putting lots of things in their mouths at this stage, most of which shouldn't be going in there, but this is how babies explore their world. They should eventually grow out of this phase. However, if they are reliant on or used to having a pacifier in their mouth, this can encourage them to continually put things in their mouths. More items in their mouths come with the increased risk of germs and disease, so the sooner we can help them understand that putting things in their mouths is bad, the sooner we can reduce these risks.
While concerns around potential dental issues for your child are real, they don't tend to present as issues until the child is around 3 to 4 years of age. Dentists and doctors agree that eliminating pacifier use by this age, and before permanent teeth come in, is in the best interest of your child. Take solace in knowing that by 12 to 15 months of age, your baby should have developed other ways to self-soothe so they will have other means of calming themselves. I would not recommend taking the pacifier away as your baby faces other life changes; don't attempt to do it when you are trying to change other behaviors or routines. One thing at a time.
The question about how to wean your baby off his or her pacifier is a difficult one, as there is no one definitive way that works best for everyone. Some people begin tapering the time their baby has the pacifier -- taking it away when they play, then taking it away in the car, etc. This can be effective. Other parents try to make the pacifier taste "bad" so the child doesn't want it anymore. I tend to not endorse this method because it does not empower the parent, but as I said before, this is difficult and you have to do what makes sense for you.
Personally, I promote the cold turkey method. It's sort of like taking off a Band-Aid -- painful, but the pain doesn't last quite as long. Often tying it to an event, like a birthday, is helpful for the baby and the parent. But no matter what, set a quit date, stick to it, and ensure that everyone is on board with the process. All parents and caregivers must be committed to doing it together and agree to the method.
Every child is different, and every child's development is different. Make sure to talk with your pediatrician and any other doctors in your child's life when planning to make this change to ensure your baby is ready for it. And good luck!
Mary Brown, M.D., is a pediatrician at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center and an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.