The Binky Breakup

What to do when your Toddler won't pull the plug.

Pacifier Dependence

Like many parents, Suzi Rush thought that her son EJ's pacifier was a lifesaver -- at least at first. But at age 2, EJ still craved his binky when he was upset, and if it was MIA when he needed it, all hell broke loose. His fits could be embarrassing -- as one was when Rush forgot to take along his beloved binky on an emergency-room visit. "EJ had hurt his arm playing and was so hysterical that he wouldn't cooperate for the exam or x-ray," she says. "The staff asked me to leave and come back when he had calmed down! I had to find a binky." Rush ended up begging the nurses in the maternity ward's nursery for one. When she popped it into his mouth, EJ relaxed, climbed on the x-ray table, and was the perfect little patient.

Anyone with a binky-obsessed toddler can relate. For many kids, using a pacifier satisfies a natural craving. "Babies are born with a built-in need to suckle," says George Cohen, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. But when it becomes a habit, kids need help letting go.

Why Wean?

In a perfect world, all kids would give up their binky by the time they can hold a cup, or by age 1. Beyond that, constantly sucking on a pacifier can lead to dental problems, says Dr. Cohen. The pressure created by your child's mouth can lead to orthodontic trouble, such as protruding front teeth and a misaligned bite. Though this doesn't happen until kids start getting permanent teeth (usually around age 5), it's wise to start weaning your child off her binky well beforehand when the habit is easier to break.

Excessive pacifier use can also interfere with your toddler's developing speech and make him less interested in talking. "Parents should at least start limiting daytime pacifier use so that kids have a chance to hone their language skills and to socialize with others," says Kristin Hannibal, MD, a behavioral pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Quitting the Binky

So how can you make it easier for your little pacifier devotee to kick the habit? Our smart tricks and techniques can help her part with it peacefully.

The time it right. Don't try to wean your child off her pacifier during a stressful time, such as the birth of a new sibling, an illness, or a move, says Dr. Cohen. Kids use their binky to cope with transitions and tough situations, so they're far less likely to hand it over when they're anxious. Make it a team effort. Don't forget to tell your babysitter, family, and everyone else who cares for your child about your ban-the-binky plan -- and make sure they follow it. Otherwise, someone may slip your child a pacifier and undo all your efforts. Limit binky time. Although some kids do respond to the cold-turkey approach, gradual weaning is usually more successful. Start by telling your toddler that the pacifier can't leave the house. Once he can handle that, restrict its use to naps and at bedtime. Banish boredom. Many toddlers plead for their pacifier when they have nothing to do, says Dr. Cohen. The next time your child whines for it, try distracting her with a favorite blanket or stuffed animal, sing a song with her or take a few minutes to sit and cuddle instead. Bonus: Since kids use a pacifier to self-soothe, these techniques show her that there are other ways she can feel calm and secure. Tie the breakup to a milestone. Linda Haworth-O'Brien, of Palos Heights, Illinois, encouraged her daughter, Maggie, to give up her binky for her third birthday. A few weeks beforehand, she talked up what a big girl Maggie was and that she wouldn't need a pacifier anymore. Coincidentally, her supply of binkies "mysteriously" dwindled. On her birthday, Maggie went without her pacifier all day. That night, however, she cried and Mom caved in. "But the next morning, she handed me her pacifier and told me she was ready to give it up," says Haworth-O'Brien. Keep it positive. Putting pressure on your child to give up her pacifier will do more harm than good. While it's perfectly fine to say that your toddler is a big boy or girl now and doesn't need to suck on a binky, don't stress her out or make her feel ashamed by saying that pacifiers are babyish, says Dennis Woo, MD, chairman of the department of pediatrics at Santa Monica-UCLA Hospital. But even if your child isn't swayed by your encouraging words, don't worry: Once she gets to preschool and sees that the other kids don't use a pacifier, she'll likely give it up on her own.

Fun Farewells

Check out these clever ways to make pacifiers disappear.

Binky Fairy When Sandy South's daughter, Kasey, was 2, the Castle Rock, Colorado, mom put the last pacifier under Kasey's pillow one night. "I told her that the Binky Fairy was going to take it because she was a big girl now and a new baby needed it," says South.

Pacifier "Present" If you know someone who just had a baby, ask your child to wrap up her binkies for the newborn. Trash them when she isn't looking.

Toy Trade Bundle up your child's pacifiers and take them to a toy store so he can use them to "buy" something. He can hand the bag to the cashier as payment while you slip her the money for the new toy.

The Rules

Don't cut holes in a pacifier. Some parents try this to make binkies less appealing to kids, but it can create a choking hazard.

Do unplug to talk. If your child wants to say something to you, tell him he has to take his pacifier out of his mouth first.

Don't cave. If you break down and give your toddler her pacifier after an epic-length tantrum, she'll think that acting up is her ticket to getting it.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the December 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

By Marnell Jameson, Photos by Shannon Greer

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