The pacifier, the bottle, the lovie – they make our lives easier. Whether it’s to calm a fussy baby, allow a breastfeeding mom a break, or help a child to self-sooth, babies and parents sing the praises of these beloved objects. It’s healthy for kids to form attachments to them, but what does the evidence say about why and when we have to say goodbye to these creature comforts?
It’s not just a luxury – “non-nutritive sucking” is a biological need for babies when they are tired, hungry, bored, or uncomfortable. In fact, fetuses start to suck in utero in the first trimester (around the time their first taste buds are developing). The behavior is hardwired – a built-in reflex controlled by the brain stem at first and coming under more conscious control in the first few months of life. Not only do pacifiers soothe and regulate babies, research has shown that using them at nap and nighttime decreases the risk of SIDS during the first six months of life.
Many moms hear that offering a pacifier will interfere with breastfeeding, but a recent controlled study in The Journal of Pediatrics indicates that pacifiers do not impact nursing at all. Moms who offer them are just as likely to breastfeed exclusively and for the same length of time as moms who do not. The study does, however, have three caveats: the moms all identified themselves as “motivated” to breastfeed exclusively, pacifiers were introduced at day 15 of life, and breastfeeding had been well established in those first two weeks.
As the months and years go on, doctors recommend pulling the plug on pacifiers because of potential dental malformations and speech delays. Dentists usually recommend weaning from a pacifier by age two, because regular pacifier use after that age can misalign the teeth, especially when the toddler is actively sucking, not just holding the pacifier in her mouth. And a study released last year reported that children who used a pacifier (or sucked their fingers or thumbs) for more than three years were three times as likely to develop speech impediments.
My friend’s son has a very specific morning ritual: a bottle of milk, a cup of water, and cereal in a bowl – all taken with what he calls “robot arm,” meaning you must cover him with a blanket except for his free drinking and eating hand while he watches TV. At age three, with a final nudge from the pediatrician at his well-visit, he’s relinquished the bottle (but he told his mom that he never wants to go back to the doctor). It’s no small thing for a child to give up a comforting tradition.
My friend didn’t see the bottle as an issue, because it was limited to the morning routine. The preschooler who nurses a bottle or sippy cup throughout the day, toting it in the manner of a pacifier, is a different story. For the more hooked end of the spectrum, the doctor’s recommendation will be to toss the bottle around 18 months, based on the same research into dental and speech problems (again, particularly evident at age three). The added factor with a bottle is tooth decay, which will creep up if teeth are regularly bathed in milk.
But even for the toddlers who are moderate drinkers, sticking to the bottle is like keeping training wheels on when you know perfectly well how to ride a bike. Manhattan-based pediatrician Yael Wapinski says that if a toddler is developmentally ready to drink from a cup, then he should do it. “Once a child can drink successfully on his own,” she says, “doing so will give him independence and a sense of self-confidence.”
My two-year-old loves “Mr. Blankie” – the remains of a once intact small blanket that has been dragged around, pulled apart, and chewed on. Before he falls asleep, he shoves it down near his belly and curls into a little pod over it.
In the 1950’s, the British pediatrician Donald Winnicott described the blanket or other soft object of baby’s affection as a “transitional object.” He theorized that little ones use lovies to help them grasp the concept that they are separate beings. The transitional object is the baby’s first “not me” possession – something that she owns and can actively use for her own soothing and comfort.
In a parenting group that I run, a mom recently asked me if a lovie is a healthy form of comfort or whether kids end up hiding behind them or being overly dependent. As far as I can tell, research shows they don’t hurt – securely attached babies are no more or less likely to have one. And they can really help an anxious child stay comfortable and engaged in stressful situations.
I say let your child take her blanket to the Freshman dorms if she wants. The issue is not when a child should let go of a tattered fabric friend, what matters is how it does or does not impact her life. If blankie seems to get in the way of enjoyment (your toddler can’t leave the house without it or has hysterical meltdowns when you can’t find it immediately), it might be time to set up the rule that blankie lives in the crib, where he is nice and safe. Otherwise, let them find comfort where they can.