Is a Pacifier getting in the way of Good Sleep?

pacifier sleep

I am not anti-pacifier. In fact I have a love-hate relationship with them. And, I’ll be honest, my oldest child used one until he was over 2 years old (this was before I became a sleep coach). Many of mothers have been saved in a time of need by the binky.

Pacifiers have benefits beyond soothing an upset child as well. The AAP found that pacifiers can reduce the risk of SIDS, possibly due to the fact that baby has a harder time burying their face into soft bedding if they have a pacifier sticking out of their mouth, or potentially that they may hinder the child from going into as deep of sleep. So given that very substantial and important consideration, I’m making the following recommendations for older infants. That doesn’t mean this is irrelevant if your little one’s younger than that, but just make sure you’ve carefully considered the pros and cons of taking away the pacifier before you make a decision.

So here’s the conundrum from a sleep expert’s point of view; pacifiers can become a problem when it comes to sleep. If a baby depends on falling asleep with a pacifier in, they almost always end up waking up in the night after it’s fallen out, and they may fuss until a parent gets up, finds it, and pops it back in their mouth.

So first off, let’s look at why some babies can’t just fall asleep with a pacifier in and then peacefully sleep through the night, and then we can look at some strategies for getting rid of the pacifier if you feel that is the right direction for your family.

Sleep, for babies and adults alike, comes in cycles. Many of us are under the assumption that we fall asleep at the start of the night, go into a deeper sleep as the night goes on, then gradually come out of it as the morning rolls around. It is true that we go from light sleep to deep sleep and then back again, but it happens several times a night, depending on how long you sleep for. For adults, a full cycle typically takes somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes. For a baby, it’s closer to 50. If your baby won’t go to sleep at bedtime without a pacifier in their mouth, then there’s a distinct possibility that they’re reliant on that pacifier to get to sleep. When they get to the end of a sleep cycle, they get into that very light stage of sleep and might actually wake up, at which point, they’re still tired, but they might have trouble getting back to sleep because, “Hey! Where’s the pacifier? I can’t get to sleep without my pacifier!” And if they can’t find it, or they haven’t figured out how to put it in on their own yet, they’re going to get upset because they can’t get back to sleep, and they’re going to start crying for someone to come and rectify the situation. And that, right there, is the definition of what we in the sleep consulting field call a “sleep prop.” Sometimes it’s feeding, sometimes it’s rocking, sometimes it’s some crazy combination of a bunch of things, but essentially it’s something that a baby relies on in order to get to sleep that they can’t provide on their own when they wake up in the night.

More than anything, that’s the secret to sleeping through the night. Getting rid of sleep props is, hands down, the most important component to getting your little one sleeping peacefully from the time you put them to bed until they wake up. So if you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s IT! That’s exactly what’s happening with my baby!” then you’re probably going to want to take some steps to get rid of that pacifier, and I’ve got a few tips to get you through the process as quickly and peacefully as possible.

When it comes to breaking bad habits, I tend to think that cold-turkey is often the easiest and least confusing for everyone. Children tend to do better with absolutes than they do with moderation, so my advice to parents is almost always to just pick a day to make the change, explain it to your little one (if they are old enough to understand), and then toss all the pacifiers into the trash. Consistency is important here, so don’t save one for emergencies or just-in-case scenarios, because it will be too easy for you to fall back on the pacifier in a pinch, which will leave your baby confused (“why do I get one in some situations but not others? Maybe if I cry harder, I will get one?”)

Alright, you’ve made the decision, you’ve given yourself a pep talk and you are ready-ish to do it. What’s next? Toddlers typically embrace the idea of growing into “big kids,” so marking it as a milestone can be a big help. Make sure to present the change as a very exciting and positive occasion. This is a bit of a dirty parenting trick, but you could round this off with the introduction of a “Pacifier Fairy,’ by telling your toddler that the Pacifier Fairy is coming to collect all of their binkies and, in exchange, is going to leave them a special surprise. Whether that’s something that your little one will embrace, I can’t guarantee that one, but sometimes a new lovey can be an acceptable replacement.

One quick side note here: I’ve seen a lot of situations where parents with a toddler and a newborn or younger sibling in the house will give the older baby’s pacifiers to the younger one. On its face, this seems like a good idea, but it can breed some resentment from your toddler when they see their younger sibling sucking on their pacifier. If you’re able to, get rid of your toddler’s pacifiers and get different ones for the younger child.

So, you’ve laid the groundwork, your little one has grasped what’s going on, and the house is now binky-free.There’s going to be some pushback. When that pushback hits, and your toddler starts to lose it a little, my advice is distract, distract, distract. Keep some of their favorite snacks on standby,plan some fun activities, or get outside, and when they start to fuss about the lack of a pacifier, quickly turn their attention to something else. You can acknowledge their frustration, offer them as much comfort and support as they need, but don’t apologize or give in. Remember that you’re the authority figure here and if you’ve decided that the pacifier is a thing of the past, that’s the way it is. Giving them a pacifier at this stage is only going to reinforce the idea that crying or fussing is an effective tool for getting their way.

I will say that personally, getting rid of the binky was terrifying for me as a parent. I thought there was no way that my son would ever get through a day or night without it. I made it a lot worse in my mind than it needed to be. After a few days, he had moved on and even learned some new skills for soothing himself.

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