• November 2010

Three moms, two of them doctors, help families kick the pacifier habit

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor & Publisher
Be Inkandescent Magazine

Does your child have an obsession with the pacifier or thumb and crave it like you crave your morning coffee?

That’s the first question asked by the three moms who authored the handbook, Pacifiers Anonymous: How to kick the pacifier or thumb sucking habit.

A doc, a psychologist, and a mom ask — and answer — some tough questions

“The reason we wrote the book is that we were in the same boat as many of our friends,” says co-author Dr. Sumi Makkar Sexton, an assistant professor of family medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, DC, and a founding partner and President of Premier Primary Care Physicians in Arlington, Virginia (www.premierprimarycare.com). “I was not just seeing pacifiers become a problem for many of my patients. My two young daughters were also avid pacifier users.”

Step 1: Admitting the addiction

Like all problems, the first step toward solving it is admitting there is actually an addiction.

“My interest in the field of pacifiers started when I had concerns about the pacifier’s affect on breastfeeding my daughter,” says co-author Dr. Ruby Natale Andrew, a practicing clinical child psychologist in Miami with expertise in early childhood development. “So the first question we ask in Chapter 1 is who loves it more—you or your little one?”

Dr. Andrew and her co-authors realize, of course, that the idea that pacifiers and chronic thumb sucking is an addiction sounds pretty harsh. To determine if you and your child are addicted to the pacifier, they suggest asking yourself these questions:

  • Does your child have an obsession with the pacifier or thumb and crave it like you crave your morning coffee?
  • Does it sometimes feel like he or she uses it uncontrollably?
  • Are you afraid that stopping the pacifier or thumb could lead to anxiety, mood changes, or sleeplessness?

“If you answered yes, that’s addiction, my friend!” teases co-author Liza Draper, a stay-at-home mom of two, who prior to having children was a writer for an art gallery and a social justice nonprofit organization. “All joking aside, addiction experts might argue that if the action is not truly harmful, it might just be a compulsive behavior instead. Either way, it’s a perfect setup for a 12-step program to help kick the habit.”

That’s just what they provide in their 12-step book. Here’s a preview.

  • Step 2: Knowledge is Power. While Freud viewed sucking as innate, soothing behaviors for a child are similar to stress reducers for an adult. In this chapter you’ll better understanding non-nutritive sucking.
  • Step 3: Making the Decision “This book isn’t just about making the decision to stop pacifier use or thumb sucking,” the authors insist. “It’s also about the pros and cons of starting in the first place.”
  • Step 4: Appreciating Differences. Cultural perspectives, and the history of pacifying, provide a broad perspective on the issue.
  • Step 5: Turning to Others. What do other parents think? The authors surveyed 100 parents to get their points of view.
  • Step 6: Getting Ready for the Big Day. “From a psychological and child development perspective, most children are ready to give up the pacifier when they are between 12 and 18 months old,” the authors explain. They then help you decide when to make a clean break.
  • Step 7: Make a List. No need to reinvent the wheel. In this chapter the authors provide effective weaning techniques that other parents have used.
  • Step 8: Choosing the Technique and Timing. “Remember, there’s no perfect technique,” the authors remind readers. In this section they provide several approaches that are practical, positive, and avoid power struggles.
  • Step 9: Getting the Sponsors Onboard. “When an adult commits to breaking a habit, support from others can be critical,” the authors write, noting that these “sponsors” are often the backbone of quitting programs. “Children are no different.”
  • Step 10: Turning Fear Into Hope. You are going to love these success stories.
  • Step 11: Dealing With the Aftermath. From swaddling and rocking to bathing and music, in this chapter readers will find alternative soothing techniques.
  • Step 12: Learning From the Process. Once you’ve mastered the weaning process, don’t keep it a secret.

You are not alone

It may make “paddicts” (pacifier addicts, as parenting bloggers affectionately refer to them) feel better to know that roughly 75 percent to 90 percent of all infants suck a pacifier or thumb. In fact, the thumb has long been the sucking method of choice.

“But currently in the United States, the pacifier has made its way to numero uno, with user estimates as high as 74 percent,” says Dr. Sexton. “One study found that 20 percent of children sucked a pacifier beyond age 3.”

Dr. Andrew notes that thumb suckers are a bit different from their paddict pals in that they tend to suck into and beyond the toddler years since it can’t just be “taken away.”

“So by age 3, the trend reverses, with more thumb suckers than pacifier suckers,” she says.

Draper doesn’t find the prevalence of pacifier and thumb sucking a surprise, noting that as parents, we probably know that we, too, sometimes benefit from our children soothing themselves with a pacifier or thumb.

“After all, doesn’t a happy child equal a happy parent?” she says. “And who doesn’t appreciate a peaceful night’s sleep? We become ‘enablers’ of this so-called addiction. We gave a pacifier to our little one in the first place, sometimes after much struggle to find the exact pacifier model that did the trick. Or we gently helped them find their fingers to suck on and were relieved when they found them on their own.”

The parent trap

Whether you’ve encouraged the pacifier or the thumb, each can lead to a habit that is equally hard if not harder for the parents to break.

“Sometimes the habit just gives us that edge we need to get through a busy day or a tough work schedule or a move to a new home or the birth of another child or even just everyday life,” notes Dr. Sexton. “I recall a dear friend saying to me as she watched my then 27-month-old suck away at her pacifier, ‘You know, it’s harder for the parents to give up the pacifier than it is for the child.’

“I was so irritated and offended, but I played it off and laughed at the comment,” she recalls. “Later, I grumbled to my husband, who was as big of an enabler as I was. Seven months later when we were ready to wean our daughter from the pacifier, it struck me that I had to prepare myself far more than I had to prepare her. My friend was right, but I was too addicted myself to admit it! In most cases, and definitely for both of my children, it is often harder on the parents.”

If you are a paddict, or know someone who is, enable yourself to break the addition with a copy of Pacifiers Anonymous: www.pacifiersanonymous.com.