For some babies, the pacifier is magic. Babies have an instinct to suck, and a paci can be the ticket to soothing and good sleep. On the other hand, using a pacifier can also hold back sleep progress, or even cause a sleep regression and impede sleep where it used to help. Not surprisingly, parents often ask us whether the pacifier is a good idea or not. Here’s how you’ll know:
Is your baby a newborn?
Newborn babies are biologically driven to make that little sucking motion, and their mouths are the most sensitive area of their bodies. They even start to practice this motion while they’re in utero. The primary reason is for consuming milk, but not surprisingly, it’s also a natural route to soothing and therefore sleep.
When babies are little, it can help to give a pacifier to help them soothe between feedings, and research tells us it does not interfere with breastfeeding. A paci is also a great way to transition from the breast or bottle to independent sleep, so that a newborn doesn’t grow completely dependent on drinking milk to fall asleep.
While it’s the sweetest and most natural pattern to doze off during a feeding, practicing inserting a pacifier to soothe into sleep helps loosen the association just a bit. Pacifiers are also recommended for little babies at sleep time because they’re thought to lower the risk of SIDS.
Can the baby be in charge of it?
When my partner and I do sleep consultations, the main criteria we use for deciding the paci should stay is whether the baby can be in charge of it. Can she re-insert it if she needs it in the night?
Since newborn movement is limited, a pacifier might stay put, and even when it falls out after the baby dozes off, sometimes she isn’t aware enough to care.
When babies mature to about 4 months old, they become more aware of their surroundings, more easily woken, and also very specific about their favorite soothing and sleep tricks. When the paci falls out, they’re sure to notice.
A 4-month-old baby is old enough to be disturbed when a paci falls out, but not old enough to reach around and find it again. I meet some babies who can reinsert their own pacifiers at 6 months, but many who can’t do this reliably until 9 or 10 months.
Is your baby having mysterious wake-ups?
If a baby has recently started waking up in the night and parents are perplexed, I often ask about pacifiers. If sleep has started to regress or the baby is older, has weaned from night feedings, and still keeps waking up throughout the night for no apparent reason, pacifiers can sometimes be the culprit.
If the pacifier is causing more harm than good, it’s probably time to move on. That seems daunting to some parents, but eventually babies do just fine without a pacifier. In its absence, they find their lovey and get cozy again — this time more fully in charge of their sleep.
Heather Turgeon is co-author of the book The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide To Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep (Penguin, 2014). She and her partner Julie Wright run a sleep consultation practice for babies and little kids.