Pacifiers — or binkies — are both godsend and curse for exhausted parents of infants and toddlers.
They can calm a fussy baby and help him sleep ... until that middle-of-the-night wail raises the alarm that the beloved binky is on the floor.
As with most aspects of child-rearing, there are strong opinions for and against pacifier use. However, the key to a peaceful night’s sleep for parents and baby that isn’t detrimental to the baby’s health lies in when and how to use pacifiers — and when it’s time to bid binky bye-bye.
Parents should not introduce pacifiers to babies until nursing is well established, typically around four weeks, says Lavawn Souther, a lactation consultant with Crown Point Obstetrics and Gynecology.
She says it takes that long to ensure that baby is getting enough milk, gaining weight, and that mom and baby have the hang of breastfeeding. “The suck mechanisms used with pacifiers and nursing are different. A baby uses a narrow, fast suck for a pacifier and a slow, deep suck for breastfeeding.”
In the early weeks of breastfeeding, mom can miss baby’s hunger cues if she provides a pacifier at the first sign of fussiness, Souther says. “Especially in the beginning, a baby may need to eat every hour, which can come as a surprise to a mom who thinks, ‘You just ate.’”
Babies are born with a need to suckle that isn’t satisfied by feeding alone. As long as breastfeeding is established and mom is educated about it, Souther says pacifier use is fine. She recommends only occasional use for the shortest duration possible.
That said, there should be no guilt in giving an infant a pacifier to quiet crying and coax baby to sleep. Studies have shown that pacifiers help babies self-soothe to sleep more soundly and reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
Though doctors and scientists aren’t sure why babies who use pacifiers are less likely to die from SIDS, some theorize that sucking on a pacifier helps correct minor developmental deformities or that the bulk of a pacifier helps wake a baby lying face down before she can suffocate in soft bedding, according to an article in Scientific American.
Souther points out that breastfeeding also reduces the risk of SIDS.
Dr. Rajaraman Iyer of Iyer Pediatric Care, in the St. Catherine Hospital Professional Office in East Chicago, says skip the pacifier. “I suggest to parents that the infant’s thumb can naturally help to calm them during crying episodes. Studies show thumbsucking doesn’t alter feeding patterns, though this has not been well-documented in bottle fed infants.”
As with anything that goes in your baby's mouth, cleanliness concerns are easily addressed. To keep a pacifier clean to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, wash it with hot, soapy water or place it on the top rack of the dishwasher.
Resist the temptation to “rinse” the binky by sticking it in your mouth before giving it back to baby, and replace pacifiers when they are torn.
Iyer notes that pacifier use may make babies sick or aggravate colic. “Some studies suggest an increase in diarrhea, ear infection, fever, or colic among infants who use a pacifier though this has not been proven,” he says. That's one reason he recommends waiting until the baby is at least a month old before using them.
While their use doesn't necessarily cause dental issues in infants, such problems can crop up if they're used too much or too long. Because a baby’s developing teeth are malleable, a pacifier typically won't cause dental problems in the first two years. But toddlers can develop bite misalignments. And sugar coating a pacifier is bad for teeth.
Then there's the issue of breaking the binky habit. “Once a habit is started, it is very difficult to stop especially if it gives joy or reduces stress,” Iyer says. “Getting rid of a pacifier may not be easy, but every attempt should be made as early as possible to dissuade your baby from using the pacifier.”
Some parents choose to go “cold turkey” and simply wait out the tears after they’ve gotten rid of pacifiers. Others wean their little ones off pacifiers in more creative ways. One way to reduce dependence is by increasingly limiting pacifier use — for example, allowing them only at nap or nighttime before getting rid of them. Positive reinforcement — words of praise, sticker charts, or small, non-food treats — can help toddlers give up their pacifiers. And some parents call in the “Binky Fairy,” who leaves a small toy, stuffed animal or doll in exchange for a toddler’s binky left under a pillow.